In an exit interview with the Wall Street Journal, outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said some provocative things about the state of America's political system and how that affects our standing in the world. In particular:
If you look past the political dysfunction, the economy looks encouragingly resilient. We’ve got much more diversity of strengths, from energy to high tech to manufacturing than is true for any major economy, and people should find comfort and some optimism in that.
But the failures of the American political system are going to be very damaging over time unless they’re addressed. Although the world will give us some time to find a consensus around long-term fiscal reforms, they’re not going to give us forever. And you can’t count indefinitely on the worlds having more confidence in our political system than is justified. We have to earn that confidence. It’s going to have to produce better results from the legislative process.
So is he right?
My natural instinct is to be skeptical about claims like these. After all, the U.S. Constitution and America's great power status have co-existed pretty peacefully for the last 70 years. One could go further and argue that America's economic might has co-existed happily with the Constitution for the past century. Is it really the system that's at fault?
Perhaps a better way to frame Geithner's claim is to distinguish formal rules from informal norms. For example, the Senate filibuster has existed in its current form for quite some time, but there was a norm about not abusing this option that allowed necessary government operations to continue without significant impediments. Given rising levels of polarization, however, maybe these norms are breaking down?
I'm not sure that's it either, however. Even polarized party elites do share some common incentives not to completely destroy their reputations. If one looks at Barack Obama and John Boehner, for example, one finds two politicians with pretty different ideological starting points that are nevetheless willing to do some compromising.
No, based on what I've read over the past 24 hours, I'd wager that something else is happening. For lack of a better way of putting it, I think large swathes of the GOP elite simply lack instrumental rationality.
Let me explain what I mean here. I'm not saying that the GOP is insane in its policy preferences. One can debate whether it's wise policy to oppose any form of gun regulation, seek massive reductions in government spending or pursue a single-minded, bellicose foreign policy. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of those policies, the GOP has beeen pretty clear in expressing them. Message received.
Instrumental rationality is whether an actor pursues the optimal course of action to maximizse those preferences given structural constraints and the preferences of other key actors. And it's here where the GOP's behavior puzzles me a wee bit. Consider two examples from yesterday's news cycle.
First, Maggie Haberman reports that a new right-wing group has sprung up to oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense:
A group of Republican strategists is forming a new outside group aimed at thwarting Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with a plan to air TV ads and to have people on the ground in the states of key senators to apply pressure in advance of his confirmation hearing.
Americans for a Strong Defense will be the latest group to hit Hagel from the right. As POLITICO reported yesterday, the well-funded American Future Fund is launching a multistate ad campaign against Hagel, and the William Kristol-founded Emergency Committee for Israel has already aired cable ads in Washington arguing the former Nebraska senator is weak on Iran and in his support for Israel...
The group’s officials acknowledged that Hagel is a Vietnam veteran and war hero, but made clear they will paint him as “outside the mainstream” on key defense issues.
Among the senators the group will pressure to oppose Hagel are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All of those Democrats are up for reelection in 2014.
Again, I get the opposition to Hagel from some in the GOP. What I don't get is what anyone donating to these groups thinks they're going to accomplish. The moment Chuck Schumer endorsed Hagel's selection, this ballgame was over. No Senate election two years from now will hinge on this confirmation vote because -- just to remind everyone for the nth time -- voters don't care about international relations. The most plausible story one could gin up is that by fighting the good fight now, a marker has been laid down for future nominations. Except that since the reputation for power is a form of power itself, the groups that fight this and lose won't seem terribly imposing for the next critical vote. If I was a wealthy GOP donor who cared a lot about foreign policy and national security issues, there are at least ten other ways to spend this money that would be more efficient than trying to oppose Hagel right now.
The second data point comes from rumblings within the House GOP caucus that maybe they shouldn't risk hitting the debt ceiling. Hey, this sounds rational!! As more GOP elites and public opinion polls tell the Republicans that this is a dead-bang loser of an issue for them, it would make sense for Republicans to give Obama what he wants on the debt ceiling but fight him tooth and nail on the budget.
Republicans are mulling the “possible virtue” of a short-term extension of the debt limit, according to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and other House leaders see such a move as the best way to engage President Barack Obama on spending cuts in the coming months. They believe that once the immediate threat of default is off the table, Republicans will be in a better bargaining position; the less drama, the better. "The last thing we should be debating is whether we’re going to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk," Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said at a press conference.
This doesn't make any sense. If the full faith and credit of the nation shouldn't be a subject for debate, and if the GOP now realizes this is not a good arena for political combat, why kick this can down the road for less than three months? All this does is set up House GOP members to have to vote multiple times to raise the debt ceiling. Why force numerous no-win votes if you can economize on the pain, have one vote early in everyone's term, and then engage in actual budgetary politics?
I'm not a Washington insider, but I've observed politics for a couple of decades now. Most of the time, even if I disagreed with the preferences of a politician, I understood what they were doing to try to attain those preferences. I honestly don't understand how many in the GOP are thinking about how they're gonna achieve their ends. It's like they've all flunked Backward Induction 101. Or watched this scene from Blazing Saddles once too often.
So I disagree wth Geithner. Sure, the American political system can be sclerotic. But what we're witnessing right now is something different. Like the revolutionaries in Stephen Walt's Revolution and War, the current crop of GOP elites seem to believe that loud, repeated affirmations of their preferences will simply and eventually steamroll Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the American people into acceptance of their policy platform. One would have thought that the aftermath of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the 2012 election, the fiscal cliff negotiations, and the superstorm Sandy relief bill would have led to some learning. But it hasn't. And that's the scariest fact of all.
Developing.... in an utterly irrational way.
I'm starting to read Dani Rodrik's provocative book The Globalization Paradox, which is well-written, accessible, and (so far, at least) quite fair-minded with respect to the various economic debates over the costs and benefits of globalization. It's also, really, a book of political economy, so it's nice to see that, based on his footnotes, Rodrik has more than a passing familiarity with political science in general and global political economy in particular.
I'll blog more about Rodrik's substantive arguments once I've finished the book, but I wanted to take this opportunity to offer a mild dissent from an early point he makes about the social sciences. In his introduction (p. xx), Rodrik argues that the ideas of economists are very powerful -- more powerrful than the other social sciences. Why?:
It is perhaps natural for an economist like me to think that ideas--and economists' ideas in particular--matter a whole lot. But I think it is hard to overestate the influence that these ideas have hadf in molding our understanding of the world around us, shaping the conversation among politicians and other decisionmakers, and constraining as well as expanding our choices. Political scientists, sociologists, historians, and others would no doubt claim equal credit for their professions. Policy choices are surely constrained by special interests and their political organization, by deeper societal trends, and by historical conditions. But by virtue of its technical wizardry and appearance of certitude, economic science has had the upper hand since at least the end of World War II. It has provided the language with which we discuss public policy and shaped the topology of our collective mental map (emphasis added).
Now, Rodrik is correct up to a point. Economists have been viewed as being at the head of the ssocial sciences for quite some time, and their unity of method probably has something to do with it. That said, this explanation only goes so far. As many have lamented, the field of international relations has increasingly embraced the tools of economics to develop and test theories, and yet the foreign policy community has not displayed an equal eagerness to have the topology of their mental maps shaped by this kind of analysis. Rodrik does not explain why economic policymakers decided to accept these methods as a valid basis to form policy.
To repeat a point I made a few months ago:
[T]he fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking. This doesn't mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments.
That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community.... Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics. They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate. This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple
innumeracyhostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two. I'd love to have a debate about whether that's a good or bad thing, but my point is that's the reality we face.
I had this observation confirmed in conversations I had with a political scientist working for the current administratioon who shall remain nameless. Whenever this person attempted to discuss generic political science observations in a staff meeting, the inevitable response by someone in the room was, "well, that sounds nice in theory, but it doesn't apply to this concrete situation." I guarantee you that no one has ever said anything like that to Ben Bernanke in a policy setting.
So, to sum up: when economists use formal models, it's technical wizardry. When political scientists do the same, it's hidebound scholasticism.
There's a supply side and a demand-side to the interactions between academics and policymakers. Both economists and political scientists have supplied copious amounts of high-quality research, much of it relying on formal models and statistical tests. On the demand side, however, only one group of policymakers has embraced this research with open arms.
Am I missing anything?
In the Wall Street Journal, Justin Lahart dissects the
miserly pecuniary tendencies of economists. Just income maximization, you say? Well, this depends. There's a difference between cost minimization and income maximization -- a fact that seems to elude at least one economist mentioned in the story:
Economist Robert Gordon, of Northwestern University, says he drives out of his way to go to a grocery store where prices are cheaper than at the nearby Whole Foods, even though it takes him an extra half hour to save no more than $5.
Mr. Gordon, however, is no ascetic. He, his wife and their two dogs live in a 11,000-square-foot, 21-room 1889 mansion on the largest residential lot in Evanston, Ill., outside Chicago.
"The house is full, every room is furnished, there are 72 oriental rugs and vast collections of oriental art, 1930s art deco Czech perfume bottles and other nice stuff," he says.
Robert Gordon is a pretty smart guy with a pretty distinguished cv, so I find this anecdote disturbing. What rational economist would so badly ignore the concept of opportunity cost as to devote 30 precious minutes in order to earn five dollars in savings? There's no way that Gordon's market wage is $10.00 an hour.
Sometimes, I really wonder about economists.
Comment away on Obama's Afghanistan speech here. My quick hits:
[I]t's possible to defend Belichick's call on fourth down as the rational, utility-maximizing decision, but conclude that he committed a series of small blunders that got the Patriots to the point where they had to convert a high-risk, high-reward play. In other words, sometimes the criticized decision might be the right one to make, but the decisions that structured the controversial choice might not have been.
... Looking at the Obama administration's foreign policy, which move echoes Belichick's play-calling?
I think I have my answer now.
This is a 51-49 decision, and I'm far from confident that he's doing the right thing. If that Eisenhower quote is any indication, however, I'm pretty sure that the decision-making process was solid.
Last night, the Indianapolis Colts stormed back from 17 points down against the New England Patriots to win a gripping game by the score of 35-34. After the game, the most talked-about play was the Patriots' decision to go for it on a fourth down play with two yards to go at their own 28 yard line with a little more than two minutes remaining and the Colts down by 6 points.
Rather than punt the ball, Patriots coach Bill Belichick defied coventional wisdom and decided to go for it. Had they converted the down, the game would have effectively been over. Instead, they fell a yard short. The Colts therefore gained possession about 35-40 yards closer to the Patriots' end zone than if the Pats had punted.
The Boston press and national press have raked Belichick over the coals for this play call. You know, stuff like, "Everyone knows by now he should have played the percentages and punted the ball from his own 28-yard line with just two minutes left in regulation against the Colts." Are they right to do so? Over at his Freakonomics blog, Steve Levitt defends Belichick:
Here is why I respect Belichick so much. The data suggest that he actually probably did the right thing if his objective was to win the game. Economist David Romer studied years worth of data and found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, teams seem to punt way too much. Going for a first down on fourth and short yardage in your end zone is likely to increase the chance your team wins (albeit slightly). But Belichick had to know that if it failed, he would be subjected to endless criticism.
If his team had gotten the first down and the Patriots won, he would have gotten far less credit than he got blame for failing.... What Belichick proved by going for it last night is that 1) he understands the data, and 2) he cares more about winning than anything else.
Is Leavitt correct? Thanks to Football Outsiders, you can fill out your own percentages and see which decision maximizes your expected utility. Or you can read the Boston Globe's Adam Kilgore and appreciate the historical percentages:
According to [AdvancedNFLStats.com Brian] Burke’s tabulation, going for the first down gave the Patriots a 79 percent chance of winning. Punting gave them a 70-percent chance to win. Even after Burke made tweaks, the win probability never dipped in favor of the punt. If anything, factoring in how explosive the Colts’ offense is, the team-specific adjustments only made going for it more favorable.
“A lot of criticism is probably way over the top,’’ Burke said. “At the very least, it’s defensible. It’s not crazy. It’s not reckless.’’
Of course, the problem with football -- and politics -- is that decision-makers are usually judged by the quality of the outcomes rather than the quality of the processes. So, the result in both worlds is often excessive risk-aversion.
And so this blog post might end with absolution for Bill Belichick and a plea for a stronger appreciation for expected-utility analysis. Except life is not that simple.
On that play, it appears that Belichick made the right call. Except that Belichick also did the following things before making that call:
Sooooo... it's possible to defend Belichick's call on fourth down as the rational, utility-maximizing decision, but conclude that he committed a series of small blunders that got the Patriots to the point where they had to convert a high-risk, high-reward play. In other words, sometimes the criticized decision might be the right one to make, but the decisions that structured the controversial choice might not have been.
Question to readers: Looking at the Obama administration's foreign policy, which move echoes Belichick's play-calling?
Two interesting articles of note over the weekend. The first is Clive Thompson's essay on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (otherwise known as BDM) and his
Fabulous Foreign Policy Game Theory Contraption forecasting model-for-hire. Bruce is the leading proselytizer of using game theory as a predictive tool in political science -- and he has quite the forecasting business to back him up.
Bruce seems to merit one of these every two years or so, and Thompson hits most of the same sources and critics of BDM's approach. He does add this nugget of information, however:
Those who have watched Bueno de Mesquita in action call him an extremely astute observer of people. He needs to be: when conducting his fact-gathering interviews, he must detect when the experts know what they’re talking about and when they don’t. The computer’s advantage over humans is its ability to spy unseen coalitions, but this works only when the relative positions of each player are described accurately in the first place. “Garbage in, garbage out,” Bueno de Mesquita notes. Bueno de Mesquita begins each interview by sitting quietly — “in a slightly closed-up manner,” as [U.K. telecommunications company Cable and Wireless Richard] Lapthorne told me — but as soon as an interviewee expresses doubt or contradicts himself, Bueno de Mesquita instantly asks for clarification.
“His ability to pick up on body language, to pick up on vocal intonation, to remember what people said and challenge them in nonthreatening ways — he’s a master at it,” says Rose McDermott, a political-science professor at Brown who has watched Bueno de Mesquita conduct interviews. She says she thinks his emotional intelligence, along with his ability to listen, is his true gift, not his mathematical smarts. “The thing is, he doesn’t think that’s his gift,” McDermott says. “He thinks it’s the model. I think the model is, I’m sure, brilliant. But lots of other people are good at math. His gift is in interviewing. I’ve said that flat out to him, and he’s said, ‘Well, anyone can do interviews.’ But they can’t.”
Patrick Appel links to this essay because of BDM's Iran predictions (according to him, the student protestors will be more powerful than Khamenei by the fall). He notes, "Let's hope his model is right, but I'm skeptical that these questions can be predicted by equations alone." Except as the above quote suggests, it's not just equations alone -- it's knowing what values to plug into those equations. This requires a different set of skills -- and rare is the person who excels at both.
Speaking of brain skills, I found Emily Yoffe's Slate essay on brain chemistry to be kind of interesting. The argument in a nutshell:
Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting "enter" to get our next fix....
[O]ur brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. "The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire," [University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent] Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one....
Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
I fully recognize the biochemical reward system discussed in the essay, and I've certainly heard this argument applied to bloggers who allegedly lose the ability to engage in long-form writing. But based on my own experience, I don't buy it.
True, blogging, updating, etc. brings excitement. But I get the same thrill from perfecting a longer stretch of prose. When I'm polishing up a case study or trying to refine a theoretical argument, I usually feel the desires for new information that I get when I'm blogging. Indeed, the biggest mental rush I get from writing is tackling a completely new subject and then, 10,000 words later, retackling the first draft with renewed vigor and the promise of molding it into something better. Once I think I have something of merit, oooh, does the dopamine kick in.
But that's just me. Tell me, dear readers -- are your electronic gadgets hampering you ability to do long-form work?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.