Archive | General Politics

More on genes and political preferences

Continuing Erik’s series on this, here’s a new article by Daniel Benjamin et al. from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

We study four fundamental economic preferences—risk aversion, patience, trust, and fair-mindedness—and five dimensions of political preferences, derived from a factor analysis of a comprehensive battery of attitudinal items. The five attitudinal dimensions are immigration/crime, economic policy, environmentalism, feminism/equality, and foreign policy. … Under the key assumption of no environmental confounding, an estimator for heritability can be obtained by examining how the correlation in phenotype between pairs of individuals relates to the realized genetic distance between those individuals … . Our GREML-based heritability estimates, although noisy, are on average about half the size of the twin-based heritability estimates. This gap may imply that genotyped SNPs tag about half of the genetic variation in these traits or that twin-based estimates of narrow heritability are biased upward … Our results paint a picture of economic and political preferences as highly polygenic traits for which individual SNPs explain only a small fraction of variance … These findings fit well with an emerging consensus in medical genetics that genetic variants that individually explain a substantial share of the variation in complex traits are unlikely to exist. If anything, the problem is likely to pose an even greater challenge in the social sciences because the phenotypes are usually several degrees removed from genes in the chain of biological causation. Our results suggest that much of the “missing heritability” — the gulf between the cumulative explanatory power of common variants identified to date and the heritability estimated in behavior genetic studies — for social science traits reflects the fact that these traits have a complicated genetic architecture, with most causal variants explaining only a small fraction of the phenotypic variation. If so, then large samples will be needed to detect those variants.
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Defining Dissidence Down

In all the coverage of Senator Richard Lugar’s crushing 20-point loss at the hands of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Indiana Republican Senate primary reporters can agree on one thing. Lugar is a “moderate.” Similarly, in a recent post Nate Silver lists the many Republican Senate “moderates” who have left office, voluntarily or otherwise, in recent years. Moderation in the GOP ain’t what it used to be; one of those Silver listed was Rick Santorum.

Lugar’s career is a striking illustration of how the definition of “moderate” has changed as the GOP has marched rightward. When Lugar entered the Senate in the 95th Congress (1977-1978) his first dimension DW-NOMINATE score was .348. By this measure the Indiana Senator was to the right of center in the GOP Conference, being the 16th most conservative of the 38 Republicans in the Senate.

The freshman Lugar was to the right not only of elderly liberal Republicans who generally voted with Democrats like Jacob Javits and Clifford Case (both of whom would soon lose primaries to conservatives), but also of Republicans like Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Hatfield was something of a Christian pacifist, pro-life and against wars, big Pentagon budgets and the death penalty. Packwood was strongly pro-choice. Both Oregonians had mixed records on economic issues, pleasing neither business nor labor consistently. Lugar was also to the right of both the Senate Minority Leader, Howard Baker, his whip Ted Stevens and even Bob Dole, whom President Ford had picked to replace Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller as his running-mate in the 1976 Presidential race in order to appease the conservative wing of the GOP.

Conservatives are wary of Republicans who linger in Washington,fearing they will attend one too many “Georgetown cocktail parties” and gradually sell out in order to win “strange new respect” from the pundit class. For sure, the pundits loved Lugar, but has he changed over the years? Not that much. Throughout his career Lugar has gotten very low ratings from organized labor and environmental groups and high marks from business lobbies.

Lugar has generally voted anti-abortion and, once the issue got on the agenda, anti-gay rights, opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell despite polls showing the public favored that move. Lugar supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. He opposed the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform. He voted to put Robert Bork and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Lugar voted for the Gulf War, the death penalty, oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refugee and removing President Clinton from office.

It is true that by the same measure Lugar’s D1 NOMINATE score dropped from .348 in his first Congress, to .241 in the last one, but moving his score ten points does not change his ranking within the Republican Conference very much in either Congress. Yet because of turnover in the conference during his tenure Lugar was the seventh most liberal Republican in the last Congress. Over the years new cohorts of GOP Senators have been more conservative than their elders, so Lugar’s position in political space has changed even though his stands mostly have not.

Of course Lugar has broken with conservatives on several issues over the years from the Dream Act to the Brady Bill. He led a bipartisan move to override President Reagan’s veto of sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1986. But Lugar was hardly alone then. It was a GOP Senate that overrode Reagan’s veto. At that time Lugar was not a fringe figure in the GOP and it took a good deal more to be pushed outside the Republican tent than it does now.

More important than any particular vote, Lugar’s interest in working across the aisle is badly out of step with the mood of today’s GOP. As that party has become more conservative smaller and smaller deviations from the party line have become dangerous. For a long time being pro-choice was a litmus test which journalists used to determine who was a “moderate” Republican. Well, Lugar is not pro-choice. But if he voted for Alito and Bork (unlike several GOP Senators including Packwood, Specter and John Warner), Lugar also voted for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, a fact that angered some pro-life activists despite his many years of 100% National Right to Life Committee Ratings, his votes against abortion funding and support of a Constitutional Amendment overturning Roe v. Wade. Voting for a President’s Supreme Court nominees, especially those who would not radically alter the ideological balance of the Court, used to be standard practice, as Jonathan Chait notes, and Lugar’s votes for Sotomayor and Kagan reflected that custom, but those days are gone.

There are other factors that explain the wide margin of Lugar’s defeat including his advanced age, his rusty campaigning skills after decades of easy wins and his ill-advised failure to maintain a residence in the state he represented for nearly two generations. Yet more importantly, Lugar’s experience is proof that in politics you can move by standing still.

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Review of Charles Murray book

Bo and Ben Winegard have some thoughtful reactions to the controversial new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” The Winegards agree with me that Murray makes a mistake on focusing on upper-class liberals and not considering upper-class conservatives as well. (They include one of our Red State Blue State graphs to make the point.) But the review is not purely critical; it concludes: “Murray’s narrative is true enough to merit reflection. And, for whatever the flaws, the book is a serious attempt to grapple with a potentially urgent problem, and for that we should be thankful.”

My thoughts on Murray’s book are here.

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“Maybe good economics, but . . . probably not great politics”??

Josh writes that a British government plan of “cutting taxes for the rich while simultaneously raising the prices on the cheapest lunch options” is “maybe good economics, but . . . probably not great politics.”

I don’t know enough about economics or about British politics to evaluate either of these claims on their own, but I’m unhappy with their juxtaposition, which fits in all to well with a familiar narrative of economics being about necessary unpopular tough choices. I’m not saying that Josh believes this particular action is a good idea, but the phrasing, “maybe good economics . . . probably not great politics” fits into that narrative.

As a political scientist, what bothers me is twofold. First, I don’t agree with the idea that whether something is “good economics” is left to be judged by the professionals, whereas whether something is “good politics” can apparently be assessed by a few headlines. Second, political considerations probably did come into play in these government plans! Those people who want their tax rates lowered by five percentage points, they have political power.

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Blame Avoidance and Budget Politics

Yesterday’s House approval of a line-item veto bill (HR 3521) continues our national reprise of the budget politics of the 1990s—complete with Newt Gingrich, but probably without the rather important denouement of ultimate compromise and budget surplus.

It is worth thinking about the structure and likely outcome of line-item veto proposals. Given the importance of the veto power to interbranch relations, why would Congress expand its scope, encouraging presidential encroachment on the power of the purse?

The short answer is that item vetoes may be less about a balanced budget than about shifting blame for the failure to achieve one.

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Is it Turnip Day?

Today is the 37th anniversary of Proclamation 4311, better known as Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.  But is it also Turnip Day?

Well, not on the calendar – that’s July 26, the proper day to plant turnips in Missouri (“On the twenty-sixth of July / Sow turnips, wet or dry.”)

But of course in political lore, Turnip Day has a more symbolic cast. It is the date President Harry Truman called the “do-nothing” 80th Congress back into special summer session in 1948, demanding that they pass his legislative program.

These days, despite how little time members of Congress actually spend lawmaking, they rarely recess formally – so they cannot be called back into session in Truman-esque fashion. (Since technically, they are already in session.)  And President Obama didn’t quite manage to pull lawmakers away from, well, anything they thought might be better to do, including watching TV later on tonight. Nonetheless, this evening the president will address a joint session of another “do-nothing” Congress (28 enactments through 8 months), seeking to re-frame the national debate around his ideas for a new package of economic recovery measures.

So is it Turnip Day?  Will Obama put forth a blazing manifesto of base-galvanizing ideas, and dare Congress to defeat them?

Or is it Triangulation Day? Will Obama instead put forth a package of smaller proposals that might win bipartisan support, and work with Congress to pass them?

Truman or Clinton, that is the question. One might argue that Obama’s third, and preferred, analogue was actually President Reagan. That glide-path to a second term involves (1) big programs passed before the midterm – check; (2) calibration of those programs (in Reagan’s case, tax increases) afterwards – check; but also (3) economic improvement, at least relative to the last election, so that morning in America can at least plausibly be dawning by next November. No check there, at least not yet. So given that both Truman and Clinton also won re-election, one suspects the Obama team would be happy enough replicating their records, if it meant getting to gleefully brandish the “Perry beats Obama” front page of the Wall Street Journal.

In a way the choice depends on calculating the political interpretation of legislative defeat.

The joy of Turnip Day was in losing the battle(s) but winning the war. Truman knew that Congress wouldn’t pass the program he demanded – legislation, by the way, that was well left of today’s mainstream. (Think actual socialized medicine.)  Yet Truman’s White House aide Charlie Murphy later noted that “we wanted to have a special message ready to go to Congress every Monday morning.”

On the other hand, President Clinton argued in his memoirs that triangulation was not “compromise without conviction” but a way to “change government policies as conditions changed” and a means of “trying of build a new consensus.” (See My Life, p660). Losing did not bode well for leadership, so he found things on which he could win.

Obviously Obama’s approach so far has been closer to Clinton’s than to Truman’s. And we can be pretty sure that, if Obama proposes anything commentators on the left will see as worth staging a good fight over, he will lose. The fact is, American political institutions privilege the status quo. The fact that they must work in tandem empowers inaction, especially when one of those institutions, in this case the House, affirmatively wants nothing to happen.  Already revisionist history suggests all the great things Obama could have achieved, had he only been smarter/stronger/more principled/a better communicator. Surely there are paths not taken, and regretted—but Obama, unlike the blogosphere, is constrained by legislative pivot points.

Urged by an advisor to “fight the good fight” over a bill he knew could not pass, John F. Kennedy is said to have responded: “That’s vanity… not politics.” On the other hand, compromise has not seemed to gain Obama much political traction so far; and Clinton, in retrospect, had an opposition party far more open to (at least legislative) bargaining. Will tonight be the occasion to change course, then?  You can make a pretty good argument that vanity is politics, in 2011. So is today Turnip Day?

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The 14th Amendment has Five Sections

The potential intersection of the 14th amendment with the debt ceiling crisis has been given new life in recent days. Former President Bill Clinton has added his voice to those of several legal scholars in claiming that President Obama could simply continue to pay American debts, even as they rose above the statutory debt ceiling. Adam Liptak summarizes the debate on the New York Times site today.

The reference in question is from Section 4 of the amendment, which was adopted in 1868 and is much better known for its relevance to citizenship (of the US, versus state citizenship), equal protection of the laws and, ultimately, its use as a vehicle to constrain state laws with the protections of the Bill of Rights.

Section 4 states that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”  The context is, of course, the Civil War—and the fear that given the chance, southern politicians back in federal office would refuse to re-pay debts incurred in winning the Civil War.  The text itself, though, as the Supreme Court held in the 1935 case Perry v U.S., can stand alone.

There are many arguments out there about whether Section 4 can be invoked unilaterally by the president to override the debt limit and protect the full faith and credit of the US.  Yet hardly any of them – one early exception is Matt Dickinson’s blog, here – notice that the 14th Amendment is made up of five sections, not four.

Section 5 states: “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

The debt limit statute itself is, presumably, such “appropriate legislation,” entirely consistent with Article I’s assignment of the power of the purse to Congress. Given the shift in the 20th century from legislative approval of individual debt issues to broader delegation of that authority to executive branch actors, a check on the scope of that delegation is reasonable enough. Perhaps the passage of a budget de facto requiring the issuance of debt that exceeds the limit is another, competing, piece of “appropriate legislation.” Even if so, the “solution” would presumably not extend past the new fiscal year in October.

Thus the question shifts from the legal to the political very quickly. Would and could courts enforce the law?  Would impeachment ensue instead?  And, most crucially, do Congress’s (still only potential) failings in this area constitute an emergency that necessitates presidential action in violation of the law, in Lincolnesque fashion?  It is up to Congress to prevent these questions from becoming more timely.

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The importance of acting in politics

I was picking on Scott Adams earlier so I think it’s only fair to point out when he has an interesting idea. Adams writes:

Before Ronald Reagan became governor of California, and then president of the United States, people wondered if an actor could become a good politician. It’s no surprise that actors are excellent at campaigning and giving speeches. But lately I [Adams] have noticed that acting is becoming the most important skill involved in policy too. Let’s look at some examples.

1. The U.S. acts as though it doesn’t have permission from Pakistan to attack Al Qaeda on Pakistani soil. The government of Pakistan has to publicly complain about it and threaten vague consequences to be seen as defending its sovereignty.

2. The U.S. has to act as though the Israelis and Palestinians can come up with a workable peace plan if they try hard enough.

3. Republican politicians that don’t agree with the main party lines have to act as though they do or else face consequences.

4. Donald Trump acted as though he was seriously considering running for president. The media acted as though they believed him.

5. Democrat politicians have to act as though the rich are a bunch of immoral tax dodgers that are the main cause of the budget problem, as opposed to the main source of funding. . . .

I don’t know how new this all is, but it’s still an interesting way of looking at things.

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On Coffee and Corruption

In the spirit of Lee Sigelman, I enjoyed a beautiful bike ride yesterday morning which ended up at one of New York City’s famed West Village cafes. While there, I observed a couple of local police officers coming in for coffee, and they seemed to be paying a different price that I was. I relayed this observation to my friend with whom I had been biking, and he responded that normally (he’s a writer, so, much as one would expect from writers in NYC, hangs out in West Village cafes a lot) it seemed the local police didn’t even pay at all for their coffee.

As someone who has written on corruption, this got me thinking. On the one hand, this seemed like an extremely nice thing to do for local public servants. The police are not highest paid residents of the West Village and they provide a valuable service to the residents and small businesses in the neighborhood, so why not give them a free (or heavily discounted) coffee?

The problem is, where do you draw the line? If three of the four coffee shops in a neighborhood give out free coffee to the police, does the fourth one have to? And if it is OK to give the policy coffee, then how about a bagel? If a bagel’s fine, what about breakfast? And if breakfast is OK, then how about dinner? And why stop there – surely the copy store and the stationary store will want to show their appreciation as well. Some small businesses may not have an appropriately useful gift from the shop for the local police, so why not just give them money? And of course, why stop with the police? The fire department also provides useful services, as do local building inspectors, and so on. At some point, this begins to resemble a much more corrupt society, where cash is needed to secure services that are supposed to be provided by the state.

Ultimately, a coffee is probably just a coffee, and what I witnessed is unlikely to have much effect on quality of governance in New York City. Still, it would be interesting to see if societies that prevent this kind of petty corruption do so absolutely —i.e., not even free coffee given out to local policemen—or if there is some sort of natural break point, below which is just being nice and above which is clearly corruption. When I asked my friend where you draw the line, he thought coffee sounded like a good place: free coffee is fine, everything else is problematic.

But then what about donuts???

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