Counterfactuals and Policy Interventions

A synthetic control-derived counterfactual of Ecuador’s predicted GDP in the absence of the 1973 oil price shock. Liou and Musgrave, 2014 (not published (yet) ).

A pressing question in policy analysis concerns estimating counterfactual outcomes. Given that we only observe one world, how do we know that policymakers’ decisions had an impact compared to likely alternative outcomes? If we assess that their decisions did have an impact, how confident can we be that its impact was positive or negative? Such answers confront what social scientists call the Fundamental Problem of Causal Inference: we can’t know for certain what the outcome had a different intervention (or none) been chosen, so instead we have to infer the existence and magnitude of an effect from other sources.

This problem is not merely academic: it affects everything. Any causal claim of the form “If X, then Y; if not-X, then not-Y” requires an assumption that we can evaluate X and Y given that we will only observe one potential outcome. Things get complicated in the real world, where we might observe Y because of processes not involving X (for instance, if I drink caffeine, I may feel more alert, but I may feel more alert if I go for a bike ride instead even if I do not drink coffee) or where some other process might interrupt the postulated mechanism (if I drink caffeine, I may not feel more alert if my body has developed too high a tolerance for caffeine, for instance).

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Tyler Cowen, The Complacent Class [Review]

“Utilize designated areas,” Airman 1st Class Joshua Green, USAF

Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class arrived at almost the right time to affect the American discourse over the country’s economic and political direction. Had it hit in early or mid-2016, the book’s theme—that American elites have become too resistant to change—would have hit exactly the right sort of resonance. Throughout 2016, pretty much everyone but Hillary Clinton’s campaign managers recognized the widespread dissatisfaction with American cultural, economic, and political institutions. Indeed, this displeasure had become a staple of cultural criticism, such as Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites and Lee Siegel’s Harvard is Burning. Cowen’s book, in that sense, ploughs a well-prepared furrow.

And it really is striking how dissatisfied Americans are withe their institutions. Gallup, among others, regularly polls Americans about how much confidence they have in their institutions, and the data display pretty convincingly that Americans are losing faith in everything–except the military and the police. This is immediately apparent in absolute terms, where the military (top, green line) has retained–even grown in–public esteem while Congress, big business, and newspapers–none ever really popular–have dropped over the past three decades.

Looked at in terms of relative confidence (relative to 1993 levels), it is astonishing to see how steady confidence in the police and the military has been–and how bizarrely popular Congress was (relative to historical performance) in the 1990s. Notably, “civilian” institutions save for labor are all clearly less popular than they were three decades ago, while military or quasi-military institutions are growing. There is a pretty clear, and pretty clearly long-term, crisis of confidence in American institutions.

But Cowen’s frame is new and welcome. Why, he asks, is a country so manifestly unenamored of its elites and institutions so resistant to change? “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether, and that is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things,” he writes (p. 1). Cowen’s answer (p. 2) is that a “growing number of people … accept, welcome, or even enforce a resistance to things new, different, or challenging. These people might in the abstract like some things to change, they might even consider themselves progressive or even radical politically, but in fact they have lost the capacity to imagine or embrace a world where things do change rapidly for most if not all people.” As he observes, “the defining feature of these groups of people is, most of all, the lack of a sense of urgency” (p. 5). Throughout, The Complacent Class draws an implicit contrast with Richard Florida’s classic work of thought-leadership, The Creative Class. Here, though, the latte-sipping Prius-driving elites are not the virtuous leaders of a productivity revolution; they are more likely to be the villains of the piece, whose mobilization against change and growth pulls the ladder up from behind them just when they have found a comfortable perch.

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APSA Membership Dues and Annual Meeting Fees in Context

The other day, I wrote about how APSA annual membership fees aren’t quite as expensive as they may seem in the context of other large, primary scholarly organizations in the social sciences and history. Yes, the economists and the ISA may charge a lot less, but it seems like the AEA is a crazy outlier (as they are in conference fees) and ISA isn’t quite a primary disciplinary organization in the same way that APSA, ASA, AAA, and AHA are.

But on Facebook, someone challenged me that this might not be the entire story. In this day, hardly anyone joins a scholarly oranization if they’re not either on the job market or going to the annual convention, and membership fees are largely calibrated to be just about the difference between the member and the non-member registration rate for the annual meeting. So maybe APSA is a bad deal, but that only becomes relevant when we look at the total cost of attending the annual meeting.

I went back to the Web and found some data. I quickly discovered that the economists are maybe the worst possible reference group for social sciences and humanities disciplines. Not only does AEA have relatively low membership dues, AEA also charges very little ($115!) for annual meeting registration. This suggests to me that AEA operates under a very different business model than the other leading social science disciplinary organizations, especially since (inasmuch as a few seconds’ Googling can be held to be research) AEA doesn’t have all that many more members. I suspect the difference comes in Big Science institutional support, probably some wealthy members’ bequests, and (maybe most important) convention hall exhibition fees and a different ownership structure for AER and other association journals.

The bottom line: Don’t compare APSA to AEA. They’re not in the same field.

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APSA Membership Fees in Context

Some political scientists–okay, a lot of people–wonder why membership fees for the American Political Science Association’s fees are so high. In particular, folks compare APSA fees, which can be steep (a maximum of $325 per year for high-income political scientists), to fees for the American Economic Association, which max out at…$40 annually.

To test if APSA was notably more expensive than other comparable organizations, I grabbed membership fee data from:

Since all of these fairly comparable associations use a broadly income-based membership fee structure, I then calculated how much a member would pay for a regular membership at $15,000 increments from $30,000 to $150,000 inclusive. I specified the breakpoints before looking at any of the membership fee schedules; depending on the association, this means that there would be some differences if I had said $29,999 or $30,001 because of differences in setting cutpoints. Nevertheless, on average, this is a pretty fair methodology.

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Institutions, Turnout, and Local Politics

A few months ago, I wrote a summary of the political-science literature on institutional design and turnout in local elections (municipal elections and other local government elections), which I share here. The takeaway: local governments may have lots of room to develop policies that promote turnout. The moral point: adopting policies that drive down turnout in the knowledge that they will do so is not canny but actively unethical.

How Institutional Design Affects Turnout in Local Elections by Paul Musgrave on Scribd

Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]

Originally published 14 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.

What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

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The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson [Review]

I’ve mentioned before that, after the 2016 election, I began a new reading agenda. (I essentially sacrificed November and December’s reading budgets for this.) One puzzle, which I discussed in my review of Justin Gest’s The New Minority, was why people voted for Trump. The other was why Hillary lost. And after time spent reading a lot about the first puzzle, I was informed that I should probably be spending some time on the second one. That, in turn, led me to books such as Carol Anderson’s White Rage (my review here), as well as others not yet reviewed in this space. So I came to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a Christmas present, with an agenda: how could it help me understand the country in which I live?

Wilkerson’s book–a vast and awesome, in the fullest sense of the term, work–helped me answer that, but it is much more than that. It is a bold and welcome telling of a story that was given, I believe, a paragraph in my high school history textbooks; certainly I recall “The Great Migration” as being a boldface term that I had to learn. In Wilkerson’s hands, though, the extent of that migration–the degree to which this voluntary movement of a people reshaped the United States–becomes clear. Wilkerson’s real aim here is to introduce Americans, or I should say White Americans, to their country, because its story has never been told.

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Nancy Isenberg, White Trash [Review]

Attention Conservation Notice: An ambitious but sprawling book that, amazingly, silences the people it claims to describe while also doing good work in de-mystifying colonial-era myths. (Originally published 15 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Error of 2017.)

Class and race intersect in many ways. Until November 8, the most common contemporary invocations of such intersectionality came from the Left to justify and explain the grievances of members of their coalition. Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day’s night, though, the discourse changed radically, and it was suddenly the intersection of Whiteness and Working-Classness that obsessed observers–including myself.

Like many people, I turned to three books implicitly or explicitly on this subject: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

Of the three, Hochschild’s is probably the most readable, Cramer’s the most perceptive and theoretical, and Isenberg’s the least useful. Hochschild and Cramer focus their attention on the contemporary intersection of identities and relate it directly to political action (or inaction). Isenberg’s book, however, is vastly more ambitious. It attempts to deliver a 400-year history of its subject, and, to give it credit, the first 250 years of that history are genuinely revelatory. (One can never again really give credence to Louis Hartz’s liberalism thesis after reading how the English upper classes viewed the New World as a cesspool in which to deposit their refuse classes.) In that sense, however, it is indeed an “untold” story (or at least a story not told often enough).

Yet the book suffers from too many flaws, many of which are structural. Its ambition is fatally undermined by the fact that it must rely on the testimony  largely of people outside the class of “white trash”; we rarely hear people in that category speaking for themselves even though they do. (In fact, there is an entire genre of music that mourns, celebrates, documents, and valorizes precisely this group.)  The contrast with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is stark: we are presented with enormous quantities of travelers’ reflections on encountering people who seem not quite human, reams of testimony about official actions that punished (or sometimes rewarded) members of the class, and, finally, a conclusion that literally quotes Mario Cuomo as often as it does a member of the group.

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The Fourteenth Day, David Coleman [Review]

Originally published 3 November 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Freedom, Donald Rumsfeld memorably pronounced, is messy. So too is history, although not the way political scientists do it. For political scientists and international-relations folks, especially in their more traditional security and policy-analytic guises, history is a source of data, a repository of cases, and, fundamentally, a storehouse of facts, neatly waiting to be trundled into a book or paper or rectangular dataset as needed. This is the only mindset under which the common conflation of “case” and “history” makes sense: cases can only be histories if histories themselves are simple and unproblematic once the relevant actors and factors are identified.

Among the most important cases in the study of security and policymaking in IR and foreign policy analysis are such well-worn topics as the outbreak of the First World War, the negotiations at the Conference of Versailles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recent scholarship has upended many of the conventional understandings of these events, with the rather salutary effect that scholars know more but “know” less about these traditional cases than they used to. In general, the more political scientists and IR types have adopted historical methodologies, the less they have found themselves trying to prove that a given theory was right. Instead, engaging in conversations with evidence, scholars have found that the evidence should inform the theory, even as the theory tells them where to look for evidence.

Yet with all the progress that has come in recent scholarship, there yet remains a sense that there is a canonical set of cases that not just students but scholars should respect. The trouble does not come from the investiture of a canon; without a shared vocabulary, how could we ever converse? Instead, it comes from the fact that these are canons of cases, and our understanding of cases remains mired in the idea that a case has an outcome and an initiation. If instead we decided to treat cases as investigations of histories–as artificial schemata imposed upon a complex, chaotic bundle–then we would recognize immediately the dangers, and the absurdities, of finding — indeed, requiring — an “end of history”.

In his The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012, Norton), David Coleman does an excellent job of exploding just such an absurdity forced upon us by generations of scholarship, hagiography, and propaganda.

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The New Minority, Justin Gest [Review]

Like many people, in the aftermath of the election I discovered a keen interest in the reasons why so many White Americans had voted for Donald Trump. This followed from one of two puzzles that gripped me at about 8:30 pm Eastern time on 11/8. The first was, “How could Hillary lose?” The second, and the one more pertinent here, was “How could so many people vote for Trump?”

These questions have fueled two quite different reading agendas. Justin Gest’s compelling, excellent The New Minority fits comfortably into the second one. And I want to underscore how important the distinction is. Even had Trump lost, the question of how so many people voted for Trump should have dominated academic political science in the aftermath. To sum this up with “racism” or “classism” or “partisanship” is merely to label the unknown and pretend the labeling constitutes an answer. Exactly how does identity play into a vote for someone so manifestly unqualified? Exactly why would racism prove compatible with voting for Obama over Romney but Trump over Clinton? And why did Trump’s appeal resonate so much with people who had almost nothing in common with him? Nothing is so bizarre, then or now, as the spectacle of the disaffected, the marginal, the left out coming together in solidarity with the penthouse billionaire.

The answers to these questions will be different than the question of why Hillary lost. Nor does investigating this question require focusing on the politics of the white working class to the exclusion of Blacks, LGBT Americans, or immigrants. The surprising political power and the massive shift of this group make it worthy of study–not least because perhaps nobody, including themselves, thought that they mattered very much until the upheaval of 2016. One of Gest’s lessons is that had more work been done to integrate such perspectives earlier that the conditions for the calamity might not have occurred.

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