Archive | Policy

Which Party Is Better for Minorities?

Speaking to donors after the election, Mitt Romney attributed his loss to President Obama to the administration’s strategy of “giving a lot of stuff” to blacks and Latinos, citing in particular “free healthcare” and “amnesty for the children of illegals.” But data show a more plausible explanation: Black, Latino and Asian American voters, who overwhelmingly voted for Obama, were simply evaluating the long-term record of each party.

The data we analyzed show unequivocally that minorities fare better under Democratic administrations than under Republican ones. Census data tracking annual changes in income, poverty and unemployment over the last five decades tell a striking story about the relationship between the president’s party and minority well-being.

From this op-ed by Zoltan Hajnal and Jeremy Horowitz.  An associated paper is, I believe, here (.doc).

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Words of Warning from My Grandfather

Big shout out to my mom, who has a letter to the editor in the New York Times today:

To the Editor:

Re “We Need to Retreat From the Beach,” by Orrin H. Pilkey (Op-Ed, Nov. 15):

My father, who retired in 1975, was chief of the North Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. More than 40 years ago, he said to me that nobody should be allowed to own land on the coastline.

He thought that the beaches should be accessible to everyone and that it was dangerous to build by the water.

Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Nov. 15, 2012

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Not so fast on levees and seawalls for NY harbor?

I was talking with June Williamson and mentioned offhand that I’d seen something in the paper saying that if only we’d invested a few billion dollars in levees we would’ve saved zillions in economic damage from the flood. (A quick search also revealed this eerily prescient article from last month and, more recently, this online discussion.)

June said, No, no, no: levees are not the way to go:

Here and here are the articles on “soft infrastructure” for the New York-New Jersey Harbor I was mentioning, summarizing work that is more extensively published in two books, “Rising Currents” and “On the Water: Palisade Bay”:

The hazards posed by climate change, sea level rise, and severe storm surges make this the time to transform our coastal cities through adaptive design. The conventional response to flooding, in recent history, has been hard engineering — fortifying the coastal infrastructure with seawalls and bulkheads to protect real estate at the expense of natural tidal wetlands and ecosystems. This approach has been proven environmentally damaging, unsustainable, and often ineffective. The failure of levees and other coastal protection structures facing Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a dramatic example of infrastructural inadequacy. The unexpected ecological effects of the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier in the Netherlands also indicate the risky nature of such systems. . . .

We propose three adaptive strategies to transform the Upper Bay, to reduce flood risk from both sea level rise and storm surge, and to challenge current functional relationships among water, land, and shelter.

Create an archipelago of islands, shoals, and reefs in the Upper Bay to both reduce the impact of storm-induced wave energy and improve the ecology of the estuarine environment. The bathymetrics of the bay will be modified, but current shipping channels will be maintained.

Create a soft but resilient coastal edge, combining tidal marshes, public parks, and finger piers and slips for recreation and possible development, and determine where to selectively place protective seawalls.

Create flexible and democratic zoning formulae for coastal development that evolve in response to climate change and storm events to increase community welfare and resilience to natural disasters. . . .

There is also this piece, just published on “Urban Omnibus,” the blog of the Architectural League of New York, that includes a decent summary of the green or soft infrastructure argument.

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There Aren’t That Many Takers in America

This is a guest post from political scientist Nathan Kelly.  We’ve previously discussed his work here and here.


Before saying that 47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes in his now familiar comments, Mitt Romney said this: “. . . there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

The taxation portion of the statement was not a standard part of the Republican message (Romney has since clarified that he just meant we need a stronger economy). But the discussion of dependence on government is at the heart of the Republican case against Democrats and is fully consistent with the “maker vs. taker” theme that often shows up in Republican campaign rhetoric. On this point, Romney was not off-message, likely making this part of the argument more central to the ongoing dynamics of the campaign. The Republican line is that there is a large group of takers in American society – Romney’s initial estimate was 47%. Here, I attempt to gain some empirical leverage on this question using information about work experience, receipt of government benefits, and demographics from 2011 Current Population Survey March Supplement microdata.

Creating a working definition of takers is tricky. A core conceptual problem is that making versus taking is a matter of degree. As John and Suzanne Mettler have pointed out, nearly all of us are takers to some extent. And nearly everyone contributes to government through taxes of some sort at the national, state, or local level. The balance between benefits and taxes might be the best indicator of making versus taking, but accurate data on tax payments at all levels of government are not readily available. In addition, when politicians talk about makers and takers, they speak in dichotomous terms. It’s not a sliding scale. Either you’re a maker or you’re a taker. Since the rhetoric is dichotomous, my strategy for identifying takers will be dichotomous as well.

So who should we count as a pure taker? As a starting point I think it’s fair to eliminate workers and those not receiving government benefits. Workers are not purely takers because they pay payroll and other taxes. In addition, workers are MAKING, earning income through their labor and therefore taking some responsibility for their own well-being. Non-beneficiaries are not taking from the government because they don’t receive benefits. So here’s an initial estimate, in which I’ve divided the 15-and-over population into three groups: workers, non-workers with no government benefits, and non-workers receiving benefits. Only the last group would fall under this definition of taker.

So we have an initial possibility of 24.7% takers. That’s a pretty big number. It’s not 47% but it’s an appreciable group of Americans. Are all these people really takers? Let’s drill down into that 24.7%. Why are those not working and receiving benefits not working? Why are they not makers?

Of the 24.7% of Americans who did not work and received government benefits in 2010, more than 70% are either disabled or retired. 7.7% are not working in order to care for home or family – not a group that family values conservatives typically malign. 12.8% are going to school, which likely indicates at least a degree of taking responsibility for oneself. So a large portion of those not working and receiving benefits – the potential takers under the broadest definition – would likely not be considered takers even by some of those promulgating the makers vs. takers argument.

However, some of the people who we are tempted to let off the hook might actually be more culpable than they appear at first blush. Some retirees may still be young and able to work. Some people caring for home or family might be part of a household in which nobody works, not a traditional stay at home mom or a child caring for an aging parent. So let’s re-create the initial chart and divide the non-working government beneficiaries into three categories: those who are non-working age, disabled, or attending school; those who are non-students, able-bodied, and working-age in households with no other earners; and everybody else. We’ll define working age as 18-65 in order to maximize our ability to find takers (prime working age is usually defined as 25-55). Excluding those living in households with other earners eliminates people who are at least part of a maker household. This last excluding factor is probably the most controversial, so I separate it from the others in order to see what difference it makes.


The bottom line here is that there aren’t that many takers in America. The most restrictive definition pegs the percentage of takers at 2.4%. If we’re willing to include people in households with at least one earner, that number increases to 5.2%. Lots of people, even quite rich people, receive government benefits in the United States, and that is a reasonable thing for true fiscal conservatives to be frustrated about. But these numbers simply don’t line up with the rhetoric of a massive class of lazy people taking advantage of the rest of us while eating solely at the trough of government.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that these are really upper-bound estimates. Being a taker involves motives as well as work and benefit status. Takers, so the argument goes, feel no responsibility for themselves and believe that they are entitled “to you name it.” The CPS data don’t allow us to examine motives, but if we could, we would likely find even fewer takers.

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Worst Congress Ever? Maybe Not!

Following on our posts, see this from political scientists Scott Alder and John Wilkerson.  They note that, once you take into account the importance of the bills passed (proxied here with their length), the 112th Congress doesn’t look all that bad:


Moreover, this Congress may conclude with a flurry of activity:

Compared to unified governments, divided governments tend to be less productive in their first sessions and accelerate their productivity in their second sessions. Furthermore, the productivity gap narrows most dramatically in the final three or four months of a congressional term.

Adler and Wilkerson’s new book is Congress and the Politics of Problem-Solving, which is summarized here and which you can buy here.  It amounts to a revisionist take on legislative politics right now.  To wit:

The resulting insights are innovative and substantial: incumbents of both parties have electoral incentives to be concerned about Congress’s collective performance; the legislative issue agenda can often be predicted years in advance; nearly all important successful legislation originates in committee; many laws pass with bipartisan support; and electoral replacement, partisan or otherwise, is not the most robust predictor of when policy changes are enacted.

Expect more from their blog in the coming weeks and months.

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The 96 Percent

What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans — 96 percent — have relied on the federal government to assist them.

That is from a piece that Suzanne Mettler and I have at the New York Times. Drawing on some data that Suzanne collected, it examines the “47%” notion and in particular how people do or do not use government social policies of various kinds. Simply put, the experience of benefiting from federal social policies is nearly a universal one, not one that cleanly divides the electorate.

For more on this subject, see Suzanne’s book The Submerged State, which Henry wrote about here. Suzanne’s earlier guest posts are here, here, and here.


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Why Government Fails to Adopt Painless Solutions to the Nation’s Problems

The conventional wisdom is that the nation faces difficult economic choices, and that we cannot make progress on our collective challenges without imposing losses on someone. But in a provocative New York Times column, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank argues that many important problems can be solved “without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone.”

Frank gives the example of highway congestion. Roads are crowded because they are generally free. Yet many Americans would gladly pay to avoid horrendous traffic delays. As Frank points out “A modest congestion fee, administered with E-ZPass-style technology, would raise needed revenue and provide an incentive to use crowded roads only when the benefits outweigh the social costs.” The congestion fee would be a burden for low-income households. But, Frank suggests, “because the gains far exceed their price, we can redistribute them so that everyone comes out ahead.” The more general point is that there are many potential reforms where the winners could compensate the losers and still be better off. Yet such “painless” solutions often fail to generate political support. Why not? Frank observes that the reforms may upset some ideologues and lobbyists, but that is at best a partial explanation.

Several years ago, Yale political scientist Alan Gerber and I invited leading scholars to contribute to an edited volume (Promoting the General Welfare: New Perspectives on Government Performance) on the failure of government as an institution to solve collective problems. Factors that our colleagues nominated for consideration included: the tendency of political competition by cohesive, differentiated parties to raise the political stakes in policy debates and inhibit the search for pragmatic solutions (Morris Fiorina); the failure of the federal system to function as a true “laboratory of democracy” that develops and spreads effective policy innovations across jurisdictions (Mark Rom); the failure to devise congressional rules and procedures that encourage the adoption of socially efficient laws (Sarah Binder); the elimination of analytic research bureaus like the Office of Technology Assessment (Eugene Bardach); and the tendency for electoral incentives to detour lawmakers “into small-bore distributive politics and feckless position taking” (David Mayhew).

To this list of factors, Gerber and I added another: developing novel solutions to promote the public good can be politically risky, because it requires a policy innovator to shift public opinion. This effort at persuasion is akin to making a risky investment, which can generate rewards for the investor or go sour. In a commercial setting, such an investment often enjoys legal protections such as patents and trademarks. But in politics, there is nothing to stop an opportunistic opponent who observes the changes in public opinion produced by his political rival’s effort to build support for a new policy from developing a similar proposal of his own.  If this copy-cat behavior is successful, the policy innovator will, at best, capture a small share of the credit for the result of his efforts, reducing the incentive to develop the policy innovation in the first place.

Gerber and I coined the phrase “Zero Credit Policymaking” to capture this political failure. As we wrote, “If problem solving is an unintended by-product of political competition rather than something pursued for its own sake, and if politicians are motivated to do what wins elections, a tension exists in our system of collective choice. From the standpoint of social welfare, a policy should be adopted if the benefits are greater than the costs, whereas from the standpoint of a politician, a policy should be adopted if the political benefits to the politician are greater than the political costs. Good policies that have large social but small political benefits may not find a political sponsor.”

Can anything be done? Focusing on Congress’s role, Yale University political scientist David Mayhew came up with a thoughtful list of reforms: streamline legislation (no more 1,000 page omnibus bills!) to help citizens better understand what their government is doing; open up congressional primaries to all voters regardless of party; encourage members to raise at least half their campaign contributions in their states or districts; package C-SPAN coverage in small segments that voters and the media can digest; and cripple partisan gerrymandering. All good ideas to promote the general welfare, but unfortunately they have not gained much traction.

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A Rare Moment of Policy Transparency in Russia: Why the Government Just Ordered Companies not to Obey Laws

The following is a guest post from political scientist Sam Greene, the director of the Center for the Study of New Media & Society at the New Economic School in Moscow, Russia.


It is rare that observers of politics get a clear view of how and why a policy decision is made. Such clarity is even more infrequent in Russia, with its notoriously opaque approach to the drafting and implementation of policy. (Indeed, if the government gets its way, which it usually does, Russian policymaking will become even more opaque, as debate on legislative amendments not approved in committee will be limited to 60 seconds, and the federal budget will be ratified without any debate at all.)

Thus it is all the more remarkable that we know almost without doubt or equivocation the reasoning and process behind one of the Kremlin’s most stunning recent policy initiatives, a presidential decree that, in essence, prohibits major Russian companies from obeying the law in third countries without express permission from the Russian government.

The decree, which was published Sept. 11 and entered into force immediately, prohibits companies designated by the government as strategic – which includes most of the extractive industries, telecommunications, media, finance and transportation sectors, regardless of whether the companies are state- or privately owned – and their subsidiaries from complying with foreign investigative requests and court or administrative orders without permission from the government. Further, the decree forbids the government from granting such permission if compliance would be deemed detrimental to Russian economic interests.

Leaving aside, for a moment, all of the problems this decree creates, it is extraordinary for its transparency. On Sept. 4, the European Commission announced the launch of an antitrust investigation into Gazprom, following up on allegations emanating from Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe that the Russian company was abusing its market position, manipulating the competitive environment and setting unfair prices. This upped the ante in a long-running effort by the Commission to prod Gazprom into compliance with the so-called ‘Third Package’ of energy market regulations, which requires that wholesale suppliers of natural gas and other energy commodities to the European Union split their market distribution businesses off from their extraction and transportation businesses. Gazprom, with the explicit backing of the Russian government (which controls the company), has steadfastly refused to comply, while the Commission has steadfastly insisted that it must.

Faced with the investigation, Gazprom argued that, among other things, it was not really subject to European jurisdiction, while maintaining that it always acts in accordance with European law. Six days later, the Kremlin appeared to back up its gas champion with the aforementioned decree, and we know, thanks to reporting by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, that appearances are not deceiving. Gazprom’s leadership knew of the decree even before many in the government did, according to the report, and the company called a press conference about the decree even before it was published. Indeed, the decree – which effectively bars Gazprom from providing evidence to European investigators and, in the end, from complying with the Third Package’s divestment requirements – was almost certainly drafted with Gazprom’s direct participation.

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Math Is Hard

Bill Clinton earned rave reviews for his convention speech, in which he skewered Republicans for failing “the arithmetic test” as well as “the values test.” Of course, appeals to facts and logic play well with pundits. But it is much less clear that they are persuasive to voters.

Thomas Edsall has a fascinating piece today on “The Ryan Sinkhole”—the $897 billion in unspecified domestic spending cuts in the Ryan budget bill. I recommend it to anyone interested in budget policy, budget politics, and how they (mostly don’t) meet.

Edsall spent some time in New Hampshire “telling potential Republican voters exactly what the Romney-Ryan ticket intends to cut.” With what effect? “Two voters, both Republicans, told me they could not bring themselves to vote for their party this year because the Ryan budget cuts spending for veterans’ benefits.” But when the intrepid reporter contacts the Romney campaign for a reaction, he is told that the Ryan budget actually mandates more spending on veterans’ benefits than the Obama budget. That $897 billion in spending cuts isn’t in budget Function 700 (Veterans Benefits); it is in mysterious residual Function 920 (Allowances)! “Gov. Romney and Paul Ryan are committed to keeping faith with our veterans and providing the care they so richly deserve.”

Edsall airs his frustration at getting the budget runaround:

It turns out that a reading of the Ryan budget—if you don’t parse Function 920—is deceptive. . . . The Ryan budget does, in fact, ‘duck the tough issues.’ Ryan claims to be proposing major steps toward a balanced budget and long-term debt reduction, but he doesn’t really tell voters how he is going to get there.

Then he gets to the political heart of the matter:

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the omissions in the Ryan budget is the failure of Obama and other Democrats to capitalize on it. Leading Democrats I spoke to . . . cited two factors limiting their ability to mount a counter-attack. First, the complexity of the issue makes it difficult for reporters to understand and write about the subject. After wading my way through all of this, I know what they mean. Second, the Ryan tactic of obscuring the cuts successfully plays to a fundamental ambivalence that amounts to an internal contradiction in public opinion: strong support for spending cuts in the abstract, but opposition to many specific cuts in programs that have popular support.

Edsall ends by quoting Christopher Van Hollen, a Democrat on the House Budget Committee, calling the Ryan budget “a shell game designed to hide the damage to the country.” According to Edsall, “Van Hollen is frustrated that the damage to which he alludes has not become a campaign issue.” Edsall himself seems pretty frustrated about that, too. But what is to be done? I get that question a lot; and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t have any good answer.

In other political news of the day, Dylan Matthews notes that 15% of Ohio Republicans say Mitt Romney killed Osama bin Laden. That result inspires a quick tour of academic writing on the nature of survey responses and motivated reasoning, from which Matthews concludes that “unlike people who read this blog, most Americans only have a casual interest in politics, and don’t have particularly consistent or well-thought-through views on most political topics.” Does Tom Edsall have half an hour to spend with each of them?

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“If our product is harmful . . . we’ll stop making it.”

I’m used to hearing the argument that, sure, cigarettes are addictive, but everyone has known forever that smoking caused cancer, and that cigarette manufacturers could hardly be blamed for supplying a consumer good that many people wanted. So I was surprised to learn the following, from historian Robert Proctor:

It’s interesting to see that, at least in public, cigarette executives taking a much more direct position that they did not want to be in the position of giving people cancer: “If our product is harmful . . . we’ll stop making it.”

Further background (including the cartoon of Fred Flintstone smoking) at the sister blog.

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