Category Archives: politics

Thoughts on market democracy, part 2a: Society as a spontaneous order

This is part 2a of a (hopefully) four-part series; see also part 1, part 3, and part 4. This part grew so long I’m spreading it across two posts, with the second post to follow when I finish writing it.

This post continues my thoughts on the concept of “market democracy” as described in John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness. In this post and the next I explore the second core idea of market democracy, that of society as a “spontaneous order”:1

… complex productive systems [such as those that produce pencils and other goods] typically were not planned; they evolved. They are products of human action but not of human design. Friedrich Hayek argues that a free society is best thought of as a spontaneous order in which people should be allowed to pursue their own goals on the basis of information available only to themselves. (p. xii)

At the simplest level the idea of society as a spontaneous order is opposed to the idea that most or even all aspects of society can be (or should be) centrally planned on a rational basis. Central planning was discredited in theory by the arguments of Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, and others that the problem of calculating prices and allocating resources in a planned economy was intractable, and was discredited in practice by the demise of the Soviet Union and command socialism in general. So spontaneous order won the battle, QED, end of story.

Except that the story really doesn’t end there, and if one agrees with Tomasi (as I do) that society is a spontaneous order, there are still interesting questions worth exploring. First up is the issue that Tomasi addresses in the preface:

Sometimes spontaneous order is used in what I shall call an ontological sense. A society either is a spontaneous order or it is not one. … if a society is a spontaneous order, then it is sometimes claimed that whatever rules, norms, and distributions result from spontaneous processes are justified by that very fact. …

Other times, however, the idea of spontaneous order is used to denote, not a state of affairs, but a strategy of social construction. In pursuit of desired ends we have the choice of employing spontaneous orders or other types of order—typically, orders that are more direct and planned. (p. xv)

Tomasi comes down on the second side of this question: “Market democracy rejects the ontological use of spontaneous order theory. It affirms spontaneous order as a strategy of social construction.” But that immediately raises further questions: Suppose we consciously decide that society should be organized as a spontaneous order “in pursuit of desired ends”. Can we do that in any positive way, as opposed to simply taking a laissez-faire attitude to events as they unfold? If so, is it possible to “design for spontaneous order”, in the sense of creating social institutions that will maximize the beneficial possibilities inherent in the spontaneous order that leverages such institutions? Is this a one-time task, after which we can safely lean back and watch society evolve? Or are there potential pathologies to which spontaneous orders are vulnerable, and which might require ongoing revisions to societal institutions, including revisions which might restrict the economic freedoms Tomasi views as basic?

Unfortunately I think Tomasi’s discussion of spontaneous orders suffers from his use of “admittedly homey” but (in my opinion) too simplistic analogies. In particular he contrasts putting together a Lego model according to a detailed list of instructions with the crystallization of sugar in solution under the influence of general physical laws, using the former as an analogue of Hayek’s taxis or made order and the latter as an analogue of Hayek’s cosmos or spontaneous order: “Unlike the principles governing the construction of the Lego model, the principles governing the construction of the crystals are endogenous and intrinsic. … The model is made, the crystal grows.” (p. 144)

This paints a picture of the entities within the spontaneous order being swept along under the influence of physical laws, without agency or intention, with the outcome being ordained by nature. Tomasi does acknowledge the potential role of intentional design in creating the spontaneous order that is human society:

… some one or some group had to decide to create the conditions in which the candy crystals could spontaneously form. … The makers of rock candy are in this way very like the designers of a constitution to govern a liberal society. Even without being able (or seeking) to control the details of the order that will emerge, both sets of orders require a maker, and that maker’s intentionality pervades the order that results. (p. 153)

He also believes that in constructing of the foundations of a social order we can and should be guided by our knowledge of the ways in which spontaneous orders develop, and that we can and should evaluate different foundations according to criteria important to us—a way to introduce considerations of social justice into a vision that would (at least as initially conceived) seem to exclude it:

According to Hayek, the rules of just individual conduct that most effectively govern a liberal social order are rules we discover, rather than rules we attempt to create. But this … does not eliminate the role of intentionality in the formation of social orders. … It is knowledge of molecular rules that makes human intentionality effective, given some norm that allows us to distinguish good candy making from bad. … With sugar crystal orders, so too with human social orders: once basic laws are discovered we employ intentionality to tweak the system to our purposes. In the domain of political institutions, these purposes are ultimately defined by a theory of justice. (p. 153-154)

But if our task is to discover the rules promoting the creation and growth of spontaneous orders that promote justice in human society, the analogy of the sugar crystals in solution paints an overly simplistic and misleading picture. Just moving from a physical to a biological analogy would be more realistic: An ecosystem of organisms evolving through time via the mechanism of natural selection would count as a spontaneous order, and would yield more insights into the characteristics of spontaneous orders. For example, organisms evolve to fill certain ecological niches, analogous to divisions of labor within an economy, and the complexity of both organisms and ecosystems increases over time, with no need for an intelligent designer.

The spontaneous order that is the global ecosystem also has its downsides as well. One major one is the existence of parasites: organisms that live off of others and have evolved quite ingenious ways to do so, for example getting first crack at its host’s food by replacing the host’s tongue, or manipulating the host’s nervous system to redirect the host’s behavior to its own ends. It’s hypothesized that much of evolutionary change, up to and including the “invention” of sex, has been in the service of reducing the impact of parasites. Another downside is the possibility of evolutionary “stagnation” or “maladaption”: Natural selection operates on a local scale, being based on the differential reproductive success of individual organisms, and does not take account more global or long-term considerations, leaving species vulnerable to extinction as environments change.

Modeling a spontaneous order simply as a physical system (even as just a metaphor) fails even more severely when applied to a society of relatively autonomous individuals who can both act and think for themselves, not to mention join with others in collective action—in Tomasi’s terms it’s like making rock candy when the sugar molecules can think for themselves and interfere with the recipe.

To better see what “society as a spontaneous order” entails, what we need for a model is something that’s complicated enough to be realistic but simpler than looking at society itself in all its rich history and complexity. We actually have such a model, and you’re using it to read this post; more on that in a follow-up post, in which I complete my discussion of society as a spontaneous order by focusing on the design, history, and pathologies of the Internet.

1. The term “spontaneous order” is itself of relative recent vintage; the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows no occurrences of the term before the early 1800s, a blip of activity in the 1870s (only some of which are in reference to human society), another larger blip in the late 1940s and early 1950s (no doubt associated with the initial publication of Friedrich Hayek’s works), and then a fairly steady rise from the 1970s on as libertarian ideas received more popular and scholarly attention. However the general ideas behind the term “spontaneous order” date back several centuries; see for example Norman Barry’s essay “The Tradition of Spontaneous Order”.

People worth reading: Peter Turchin and modeling the cycles of history

This week brings another in my series on people whose blogs and other writings are worth reading. (The first post was on the libertarian economist Arnold Kling.) I try to highlight people who aren’t household names but have something worth saying, enough so that I keep track of what they’re up to ib regular. This week’s person, the Russian ecologist turned American historian Peter Turchin, was name-checked in a Paul Krugman column recently, and he’s attracting more attention. However there’s still time to get in on the ground floor (as it were) by following his blogging at the Social Evolution Forum (a group blog, but Turchin does most of the posts).

Turchin’s big topic is cliodynamics, “the new transdisciplinary area of research at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases”. The idea that human history moves in cycles is a very old one; what is new about the approach of Turchin and other like-minded researchers is their attempt to mathematically model these cycles, using techniques similar to those used for modeling the dynamics of biological ecosystems. Given the lack of good data about historical trends this can be a challenge, but the results are interesting enough for me to look forward to seeing where the discipline goes from here.
One area where Turchin has some interesting things to say is American history, specifically his idea that demographics and other factors have driven what he calls the “double helix of inequality and well-being”. The general idea, outlined in an Aeon Magazine article and accompanying blog post, is that “general well-being (that is, of the overwhelming majority of population) tends to move in the opposite direction from inequality: when inequality grows, well-being declines, and vice versa”. Here Turchin measures well-being using an index of four variables (one being age at marriage, on the theory that pessimistic people tend to marry later) and inequality using the ratio of the wealth of the richest Americans to the median wealth (i.e., 50% of Americans have more wealth, 50% less).

Turchin notes that these indices move opposite to each other (i.e., times of low inequality are times of higher well-bring, and vice versa), not necessarily because one directly causes the other but (in Turchin’s view) because both reflect an underlying dynamical system driven by several factors: the supply of labor, returns to business owners and managers, political competition among the economic elites (due to what Turchin calls “elite overproduction”), changes in social norms, and so on.1 Turchin is working on a book, A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History, to explain and justify his theory in more detail; although the book hasn’t been published yet, he’s made a draft available online if you want to check it out.2

No scientific theory worthy of the name is complete without making some predictions (or, as Turchin calls it in this case, a projection). Turchin went out on a limb and made a major one three years ago in a letter [PDF] published in the magazine Nature:

In the United States, we have stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, and exploding public debt. … Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of looming
political instability. … In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020.

For a quick overview of why Turchin thinks 2020 is the likely timeframe, see the 2013 Aeon article referenced above, the slides [PPT] for a presentation he gave in 2011, or (if you have a bit more time) his 2012 paper “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010” [PDF].

Even if Turchin’s theory is valid, it’s not going to be so precise as to be able to make predictions down to the exact year. The theory is also silent on exactly how such an “instability spike” might manifest itself. But it is intriguing to think about what might be happening in the U.S. around the time President Clinton or President Christie runs for re-election, if present trends continue.

1. In one of Turchin’s most interesting series of blog posts, he considered the legal minimum wage not as something that has or had any major economic impact, but rather as an indicator of changing social norms—roughly speaking, a measure of society’s general opinion as to what the least skilled workers deserve for their labor.

2. Turchin is a strong supporter of scientists publishing in open access journals, and makes a lot of his work available online. This includes his earlier book Secular Cycles as well as complete issues of the journal he founded, Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History.

People worth reading: Arnold Kling and the three languages of politics

I subscribe to almost two hundred blogs, covering a wide range of topics. I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the more interesting ones, in case anyone else finds any of them interesting and also to provide some insight into the particular things I tend to blog about. First up is Arnold Kling and his “Askblog”, the tagline of which is “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree”.1

It was the attitude expressed in Kling’s tagline that actually led to my subscribing to his blog. Kling is an economist of generally libertarian views, part of a group that includes Bryan Caplan, Art Carden, Tyler Cowen, and others (many formally or informally associated with George Mason University). Economists of any political persuasion can be dogmatic and dismissive of those holding opposing views, as can libertarians whether they’re economists or not. It’s a fairly common conceit among some that they arrived at their own views by a process of disinterested reasoning, and that by implication those who disagree with them are stupid or malicious or both.

So when Kling stopped blogging at Econlog and moved to his personal blog it was a pleasant surprise to read his philosophy of blogging:

I want to model a very particular style of discourse, as indicated by the tag line “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree.” … I will try to keep the posts here free of put-downs, snark, cheap shots, straw-man arguments, and taking the least charitable interpretation of what others say. So, if what you most enjoyed about my past blogging efforts were the put-downs, be prepared for disappointment with this incarnation.

That was enough to put Kling on my list of blogs to read regularly. In reading him since then I’ve found he’s generally kept to that stance, with only a few occasions where he’s become exasperated with what he thinks are others’ shoddy and self-serving arguments.

One of the most interesting features of Kling’s blog posts is his analysis of what he calls the “three-axis model” of politics:

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

This is in some respects Kling’s own adaptation of the ideas of Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, who’ve argued that people are predisposed to view moral issues according one or more of several “moral foundations”. (I blogged about this previously in the context of possible genetic influences on political views. Kling has also written an excellent essay discussing Haidt’s ideas.) Thus, for example, the “civilization/barbarism” axis roughly corresponds to a combination of the “loyalty/disloyalty”, “authority/subversion”, “sanctity/degradation”, and (to some extent) “fairness/cheating” moral foundations hypothesized by Haidt

Kling has expanded on the three-axis model in a book, The Three Languages of Politics. It’s well worth reading, and you can’t beat the price. Kling has also further discussed and applied the three-axis model in a number of blog posts.

Kling frequently takes his own advice (in the essay on Haidt linked to above) to “call your own fouls”, that is, to “expose intellectual error on our own side” and “search as hard for holes in our allies’ arguments as if they were opponents’ arguments”. This often leads him to espouse what I might call (in imitation of Andrew Sullivan) a “libertarianism of doubt”. For example, in an essay on libertarianism and group norms he points out that libertarians’ emphasis on individualism leads them to denigrate the tendency people have to conform to group norms, a tendency that arguably makes modern liberal (in the classical sense) and democratic societies possible. I think on balance this willingness to “think it possible that you may be mistaken” makes Kling a more effective advocate for libertarianism than the many others who are more certain and more strident.

1. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I had a little bit of professional interaction with Arnold Kling many years ago when I worked at Netscape and he was starting up an Internet venture. He had the unfortunate experience of trying to use Netscape’s web server product at the time when Netscape was in its manic hyper-growth phase and its products’ quality often reflected that. (Dr. Kling, if you happen to read this, my apologies for the problems you had, and for any part I might have played in your going down that road. But do note that I was not and never have been a “salesman”; I’m an SE.)

Looking back at 2010 Howard County campaign signs, part 3

We conclude our tour of campaign signs from the 2010 Howard County elections by looking at some of my favorites. (For more signs see part 1 and part 2.)

Frank Aquino for Board of Education (2010)

Frank Aquino for Board of Education (2010)

I like this mainly for the obvious but nice “A+” design element. The slogan is too small to read, and the domain name could be ditched in favor of increasing the size of “Board of Education”.

Gail Bates and Warren Miller for Delegate (2010)

Gail Bates and Warren Miller for Delegate (2010)

As I previously noted, red, white, and blue colors on a campaign sign are usually associated with Republicans, although for some reason Gail Bates and Warren Miller are the only local GOP candidates whose signs I can recall using them. (Eric Wargotz’s sign also used red, white, and blue, though in a very understated way.) Note the attempt to link together “Bates” and “Miller” via the design.

Ken Ulman for County Executive (2010)

Ken Ulman for County Executive (2010)

Professional, competent, albeit a bit on the bland side.

Gail Bates and Warren Miller for Delegate (2010) (large)

Gail Bates and Warren Miller for Delegate (2010) (large)

Again the colors are a cliché, but here done to really excellent effect. Note that this sign is even more effective in linking Gail Bates and Warren Miller into a single entity “BatesMiller” in the minds of voters. Also note that the small banner works better here as a single design element, as opposed to being duplicated as it was in the sign above. This is such a great sign that it’s a shame it wasn’t displayed more as a standalone sign; most if not all of the times I saw it it was paired with signs for other GOP candidates immediately above it and/or below it.

Byron Macfarlane for Register of Wills (2010)

Byron Macfarlane for Register of Wills (2010)

Understatedly elegant, soberly professional, but with a nice yellow design element to rescue it from stuffiness—a sign you’d feel good entrusting your estate to.

Bob Ballinger for Board of Education (2010)

Bob Ballinger for Board of Education (2010)

This design uses an informal typeface on a green background to nicely evoke chalk on a classroom blackboard and thus the theme of education, without being overly literal or using common clichés (e.g., apples).

Courtney Watson for County Council (2010)

Courtney Watson for County Council (2010)

Large text that conveys only the basic information needed, nice contrasting typefaces (with the top one lending an air of liveliness to the sign), a unique choice of complementary colors (including a subtle gradient on the bottom half), and good balance in the design between the top half, the bottom half, and the white border. But what really takes this design from good to great is the stand of wheat to the right: it adds visual interest, ties back to the official Howard County seal, and evokes the rural past of the country in a way calculated to appeal both to conservative older residents and more liberal newcomers concerned about environmental issues. This one got my vote for the best Howard County campaign sign of 2010.

Who will emerge the victors in the race for best Howard County campaign signs of 2014? If I have time (and remember to take pictures) I’ll be back again next year to tell you.

Looking back at 2010 Howard County campaign signs, part 2

Continue down memory lane with me as we look back at the campaign signs for Howard County local elections in 2010. (For more signs see part 1 and part 3, and note that I didn’t make a complete record of all signs.)

Frank Mirabile for US Congress (2010)

Frank Mirabile for US Congress (2010)

Based on the sign it appears that Frank Mirabile’s campaign website had (has?) a very long domain name; was taken? The stars are an interesting design element, but the middle and largest star looks somewhat chopped off.

Trent Kittleman for County Executive (2010)

Trent Kittleman for County Executive (2010)

One of several signs to use combinations of the colors in Maryland’s state flag: red, white, black, and gold. This one is unusual in attempting to use all four at once (if we count the thin white border). Note that in the actual Maryland flag the red and white elements are visually separated from the black and gold elements, and in particular there is minimal juxtaposition of red and gold.

Eric Wargotz for US Senate (2010)

Eric Wargotz for US Senate (2010)

There’s a lot to like about this sign, including the nice intrusion of the descender of the letter “g” into the middle design element. It might have been improved by ditching the slogan (who has time to read slogans at 30-40 mph?) and the domain name and bringing “US Senate” into the bottom half of the sign, leaving the middle red and blue elements plain. (P.S. Yes, I know that this wasn’t strictly speaking a “local” election.)


Presumably whoever designed this sign believed that when voters saw “Kittleman” they’d think “Allan”.

Jim Fitzgerald for Sheriff (2010)

Jim Fitzgerald for Sheriff (2010)

Another example of a bold black on yellow color scheme, this time incorporating a design element to good effect. (Some Fitzgerald signs covered this star with a sticker indicating a police union endorsement.)

Jon Weinstein for Delegate (2010)

Jon Weinstein for Delegate (2010)

Here yellow serves as the text color. I’m genuinely uncertain as to whether this sign would have been better served by using white as the text color instead: I think white text would have been more readable, but many candidates were using white text on blue in 2010, to the point of it being a cliché.

Maryann Maher for Delegate (2010) (with logo)

Maryann Maher for Delegate (2010) (with logo)

I recall driving myself crazy trying to figure out what the logo in the upper right corner was supposed to represent. Other than that it’s a nice sign.

Tune in tomorrow for part 3!

Looking back at 2010 Howard County campaign signs, part 1

Now that the local Howard County political campaigns are starting to heat up, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the last local elections in 2010. Don’t worry, this won’t be a boring statistical analysis or a deep philosophical rumination. Instead I thought it would be fun to comment on the candidates’ 2010 campaign signs—or at least the ones that I saw and managed to take pictures of. (I had meant to do this post in 2010 but never got around to it. For more on this topic see part 2 and part 3.)

I’m not a professional graphic designer, so don’t expect any truly profound thoughts. However I do think I have at least a modicum of good taste and some basic understanding of what makes a good campaign sign design. With that in mind, here are some general comments before we get to the signs themselves:

  • Less is more when it comes to campaign signs. Whether campaign signs actually make a difference or not is disputed. However as this article notes, if it does nothing else a sign has to reinforce the candidate’s name in the minds of the voters, and readability is paramount in that. The only mandatory elements are the candidate’s last name and the office they’re seeking.
  • Getting colors right is important. Some color combinations are a cliché at this point, like red, white, and blue (especially popular with Republicans) or green (increasingly popular with Democrats). Other color combinations are really hard to make work. (We’ll see some examples later.)
  • Design is a lot more subtle than people realize, though I think it’s possible for people to take it overboard. (See for example this discussion of the typefaces used by the Obama and Romney campaigns.) I personally think it’s worth finding the best graphic designer you can, even if they’re somewhat more expensive. If you don’t feel confident in your own taste find a disinterested third party (like someone you know who’s “arty”) and ask them for advice.

And now without further ado, a gallery of 2010 campaign signs and my comments on them; again, remember that I didn’t manage to get pictures of everyone’s sign, so this is only a selection:

Larry Walker for Board of Education (2010)

Larry Walker for Board of Education (2010)

How much more minimal could this be? The answer is none. None more minimal. But, as noted above, it gets the job done.

Kay Hartleb for Register of Wills (2010) (with picture)

Kay Hartleb for Register of Wills (2010) (with picture)

At the other end of the spectrum, a sign with personality to burn.

Kay Hartleb for Register of Wills (2010)

Kay Hartleb for Register of Wills (2010)

Here the personality gets turned down, but the red-and-white color scheme remains.

Jason Reddish for Clerk of Court (2010)

Jason Reddish for Clerk of Court (2010)

A color scheme that (deliberately?) puns on the candidate’s name. It’s also the political equivalent of showing up at a party wearing the same dress as someone else—although to be fair there were a number of copycat design schemes in 2010, including (as we’ll see) the ubiquitous white text on dark blue background.

Margy Rappaport for Clerk of Court (2010)

Margy Rappaport for Clerk of Court (2010)

Lavender’s a color you don’t see that often in campaign signs.

David Proudfoot for Board of Education (2010)

David Proudfoot for Board of Education (2010)

Using a foot as a design element was presumably an idea that was impossible to resist. Note also that this sign refers to the “School Board”; I think all the other candidates’ signs referred to the “Board of Education”.

Brian Meshkin for Board of Education (2010)

Brian Meshkin for Board of Education (2010)

Brian Meshkin was one of several candidates listing a campaign website as an alternative to having people do a Google search for more information. I didn’t notice until looking very closely that it also includes instructions for texting him.

More 2010 campaign signs to come in part 2!

Tom Coale for Delegate in District 9B

Last Tuesday Tom Coale announced that he’s running for the open House of Delegates seat in the newly-created District 9B in (parts of) Ellicott City. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the fundraiser in which Tom announced his campaign. Equally unfortunately I won’t be able to vote for Tom; I live just north of the boundary line of District 9B, in “Bates-Miller” territory. However the least I can do is to publish a blog post commenting on Tom’s platform and campaign.

Although I don’t agree with Tom on every single issue, I’ve always admired the process by which he comes to his positions and justifies them publicly. I think his approach in this campaign exemplifies that process, as seen in his blog posts and on his campaign website.

First, he’s starting with a clear focus on the local problems of his potential constituency in Ellicott City: basically the things that anyone living here for any length of time would be aware of, including the economic health and environmental well-being of the historic downtown. The one thing I haven’t seen him comment on yet is the process and prospects for revitalizing and upgrading the Route 40 corridor. It’s a less glamorous issue than the fate of historic Ellicott City and also a harder one to crack, since the Route 40 strip by its nature will always be more of a place to drive through than to drive to. Nonetheless there’s been a lot of talk about Route 40 revitalization over the years, and I’d be interested in Tom’s thoughts on how he might work as a state delegate to further that process along.

Second, I like Tom’s crisp summation of the principles he thinks are important—good government, smart government, and your government—and I’d like to say little more about each one.

“Good government” is something we should be able to take for granted, but unfortunately cannot in many jurisdictions. Having government be free of corruption and not unduly influenced by special interests is especially important for the Democratic Party, traditionally thought of as the party of government. For the GOP wrongdoing by elected officials, even Republican elected officials, reinforces the argument that government is inevitably flawed and can accomplish nothing of importance compared to private enterprise. But for the Democratic Party official wrongdoing strikes at the very heart of the party’s presumed reason for being, namely to serve all people and not just the wealthy or politically connected.

With regard to “smart government”, Tom writes that “I honestly believe that when most people say they favor ‘small government’, they really mean ‘smart government’. If a program was effectively placing low income single mothers in gainful employment while offering reliable daycare, we would want that program to grow, serve more people, and change more lives.” I disagree a bit with Tom here. For one thing, there are a fair number of libertarians and others of similar opinion who object to government on principled grounds having to do with the morality of state coercion. There are also a fair number of people who object to particular forms of government spending for less principled reasons. For them the issue is not whether government spending is effective or not, but whether it goes to “those people” instead of “our people”. (I should also add that you can find this attitude on both sides of the party lines.)

Nevertheless Tom is correct that legislators should strive to do things that are effective in solving the problems that are supposedly at issue, and should pull back on or eliminate programs that lack such effectiveness. Again this is important in restoring and maintaining people’s trust in government and in a party that positions itself as supportive of government. It’s also important in restoring and maintaining the stature and status of government workers themselves. Every wasteful and ineffective government program makes it that much harder to justify providing adequate pay and benefits for those government employees responsible for implementing such programs.

Besides the points Tom has already made in his blog post and campaign materials, I’d be interested in seeing Tom’s take on the approach Jim Manzi and others have advocated of undertaking controlled experiments to measure the effectiveness of government programs and related interventions. (See for example Manzi’s book Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Government.) I don’t know that this approach would be politically palatable (for the same reasons that no one in a clinical trial wants to receive a placebo), but we do have a lot of local Maryland expertise in the relevant statistical and experimental disciplines, for example at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and other institutions, and I think this idea is worth at least some initial exploration.

Finally, I agree with Tom’s points regarding government being “your government”, including that the goal should not be just transparency but clarity, particularly including clarity about Tom’s own motives and actions as a delegate should he be elected. If he does end up in the House of Delegates, I think that will be an interesting landscape for Tom to navigate. As a member of the Columbia Association Board of Directors he was among a small group of relatively equal players. As a newly elected delegate, on the other hand, he would be expected to be a “team player” when it came to the legislative programs promoted by the House of Delegates leadership. What he himself might think is right may well be in conflict with the need to “go along to get along” when it comes to receiving desired committee assignments and acquiring some measure of influence within the legislature to advance the goals he thinks are important. I have faith in Tom’s principles, but neither he nor anyone else can forever avoid the inevitable conflicts between principle and expediency.

With that said, I look forward to seeing Tom’s campaign evolve as the 2014 races heat up. Not to take anything away from the other announced or potential candidates in District 9B, whether Democrats or Republicans, but as did Dennis Lane Tom plays a special and vital role in the local Howard County scene, and I think I can speak for others when I say that I’d be overjoyed to see him advance to a bigger role on a larger stage.

The long game in Columbia

One political faction obtains a solid majority and uses it to push through a far-reaching initiative, only to have their dominance threatened in a subsequent election marked by newly-energized opposition and relatively low turnout. The 2010 mid-term victories of the Republican party? No, it’s the “Pioneers strike back” victories in the just-concluded elections for the Columbia Association Board of Directors.

Tom Coale has already done a good wrap-up, so I’ll confine myself to a couple of thoughts continuing the analogy above. First, what I’ll call the “anti-Arbor” faction faces a decision on strategy similar to that of the anti-Obamacare GOP post-2010: They apparently don’t have the votes to reverse the decision outright, so they face a choice between trying to shape the Inner Arbor plan more to their liking, making compromises where they can find them, or throwing sand in the gears of CA governance to try to delay things until they can re-take a board majority and kill the plan then.

I have no idea which strategy they’ll choose, and in one sense I don’t care—they’ll do what they want to do regardless of what I think. I’m more concerned about the strategy of those who favor the Inner Arbor plan and the accompanying 21st century redevelopment of Columbia. In a recent post unsuccessful candidate Julia McCready rues the “sliminess” in the electoral process. I understand her being upset, especially about untruths allegedly spread by the incumbent. Tom Coale also writes of “blatant and intentional lies” from Inner Arbor opponents. Going back to the GOP analogy, it sounds like someone’s been exercising their inner Karl Rove (or Lee Atwater, to use an example for an older generation). However I think the operative advice here is, “Don’t get mad, get even.”

How to do that? In another post Julia looks to the passing of the Pioneer generation: “… none of us are immortal. The time will come when those in power are gone.” Unfortunately I think this is like the Democratic party looking to demographic change for its salvation. Consider that even 70-ish Inner Arbor opponents can expect to live another 16 years or so if male, and almost 19 years if female, and they may attract younger proteges and supporters in the meantime. Waiting in and of itself is not going to win the day.

What will? I think Tom Coale has the right idea: “forward-thinking candidates” are going to have to build their own networks of dedicated supporters, people who will turn out reliably to testify at CA board meetings and vote in CA and village board elections. This will require not just online activism but old-fashioned offline relationship building and dues-paying, not just for a year or two leading up to the next CA elections but for the long term.

Which leaves me with a final question: Are there enough competent and energetic people who have the patience and stamina for that, especially in an era when Columbia is no longer the “new city upon a hill” but a suburb much like any other? The Columbia Pioneers have spent over thirty years promoting their vision of Columbia; is the next generation of Columbians prepared to spend the next thirty years promoting theirs?

What good is economic freedom (as measured by the Mercatus Center)?

Recently the Mercatus Center at George Mason University released its latest “Freedom in the 50 States” index ranking U.S. states by their overall levels of personal and economic freedom. I happened to see it via a post on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, but it’s been referenced in a number of places. I won’t rehash the comments of others, many of which criticize the way the various types of freedom are measured. Rather I had a somewhat different question, namely whether the measures of freedom in this report, particularly those for economic freedom, actually tell us anything useful.

The blog post announcing the new edition of the index claims that “regulatory freedom in particular is associated with states‘ growth in personal income”, but that analysis is apparently part of the full book-length edition not yet released. In the meantime I’m interested in a separate question at the heart of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians project, namely whether increased economic freedom makes a positive difference to the poorest members of society, as BHLers suggest, or whether “economic freedom” is really just a code word for policies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, as many progressives suggest. The folks at the Mercatus Center were nice enough to release the data on which the rankings are based, so I can use that data to start exploring the question.

I should stop here and note that there are people far more competent than me to do this sort of analysis; however I think it’s important not to be intimidated by issues involving numbers and statistics, and I encourage others to take the same attitude. In support of my novice attempt I’ve created a Google spreadsheet containing the following variables of interest: the Mercatus Center values for economic freedom, fiscal freedom, and regulatory freedom for each of the 50 states in 2009 and 2011, and the percentage of people in each state participating in the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) in December of 2009 and 2011.1

I’m choosing SNAP participation as a proxy for poverty because ensuring people have enough to eat would presumably be a goal of any social safety net, no matter how basic. I would include SNAP participation rates for 2007 as well, but my source for the SNAP data doesn’t have percentage figures for that year and I’m too lazy to do the calculations myself.

I’ll assume for the sake of argument that libertarians are correct, and that increased economic freedom should reduce the number of people poor enough that they need food stamps. This might occur in multiple ways: greater economic freedom could produce general prosperity that raises the prospects of the poor as well; some economic freedoms, such as the reduction or elimination of occupation licensing restrictions, could benefit poor people specifically; and greater economic freedom might reduce the extent to which government “crowds out” private initiatives, so that people get fed via charities or support from their extended families and have less need to apply for SNAP.

Now for the analysis of this hypothesis: If you want to follow along at home, download the R statistical package in your preferred version (for WIndows, Mac, or Linux) and install it, and then download my data in comma separated value (CSV) format suitable for loading into R. Start R, go to the directory where you downloaded the data file (in my case /Users/hecker/Downloads on my Mac), and load the data into the variable fs (a “data frame” in R-speak):

> setwd("/Users/hecker/Downloads")
> fs <- read.table("freedom-snap.csv", sep=",", header=TRUE)
> fs
state st econfree2009 regfree2009 fiscfree2009 snappct200912
1         Alabama AL      24.9388     -7.4383       32.377          16.8
2          Alaska AK      -4.8841      8.9700      -13.854          10.2
3         Arizona AZ      14.6838      9.5361        5.148          15.2

(The sep="," parameter tells R that this is a CSV file, and the header=TRUE parameter tells R to use the text fields in the first line of the file as names for the columns.)

As a first step in the analysis I’ll use the plot() function to plot the values of fs$snappct201112 (the percentage of the population in each state receiving food stamps in December 2011) against the values of fs$econfree2011 (the Mercatus economic freedom value for each state in 2011):

> plot(fs$econfree2011,fs$snappct201112)

R can generate very professional-looking plots but in this case I don’t need the frills, just the following simple but nonetheless useful scatter plot:


(If you’d like you can click on the graph to see a larger version.)

At least at first glance there doesn’t appear to be any relationship between the level of economic freedom in each state and the percentage of that state’s population poor enough to be using food stamps. But I have a powerful statistical package at my service, so I’ll do a little more work. In particular, I can compute the correlation coefficient between economic freedom and SNAP participation, a measure of how the two variables are linearly related:

> cor(fs$econfree2011,fs$snappct201112)
[1] 0.03106044

Perfect positive correlation would correspond to a correlation coefficient of 1.0; in that case SNAP participation, and thus presumably poverty, would directly increase as economic freedom increases. Perfect negative correlation would correspond to a correlation coefficient of -1.0; in that case SNAP participation, and thus presumably poverty, would directly decrease as economic freedom increases. But in this case the correlation coefficient at 0.031 is very close to zero, so my initial conclusion is that economic freedom, at least as measured by the Mercatus Center, doesn’t appear to make a difference either way.

What about if I measure the correlations with regulatory freedom and fiscal freedom respectively? Here are the results for those calculations:

> cor(fs$regfree2011,fs$snappct201112)
[1] -0.2284056
> cor(fs$fiscfree2011,fs$snappct201112)
[1] 0.1714178

Now I see some correlation, although it’s relatively weak: increased regulatory freedom is associated with slightly decreased SNAP participation (slightly less poverty), while increased fiscal freedom is associated with slightly increased SNAP participation (slightly more poverty). Since economic freedom is calculated as the sum of fiscal freedom and regulatory freedom, these effects (if they actually exist) cancel each other out when considering the effects of economic freedom as a whole.

Are the correlations with regulatory freedom and fiscal freedom really significant? There are statistical techniques that can address that question, but I’m not well-versed enough in statistics to do a good job of investigating it. Instead I can get a feel for how fuzzy these correlations are by creating scatter plots as I did with economic freedom above. This time I’ll get a little fancier and put real x and y axis labels on the graph, and use the two-letter state codes to label the points instead of using circles:

> plot(fs$regfree2011,fs$snappct201112,xlab="Regulatory Freedom (2011)",
+   ylab="SNAP Participation Percentage (Dec 2011)",pch=NA_integer_)
> text(fs$regfree2011,fs$snappct201112,labels=fs$st)

(The parameter pch=NA_integer_ causes the points to be initially plotted without any symbols displayed, and then the labels=fs$st parameter to the text() function causes the state codes to be plotted where the symbols would normally go.)

Here’s the resulting graph for SNAP participation percentages vs. regulatory freedom:


It looks as if there’s a slight tendency for states with greater regulatory freedom to have fewer people on food stamps, but still the data are all over the map in general.

I’ll do the same sort of graph for fiscal freedom:

> plot(fs$fiscfree2011,fs$snappct201112,xlab="Fiscal Freedom (2011)",
+   ylab="SNAP Participation Percentage (Dec 2011)",pch=NA_integer_)
> text(fs$fiscfree2011,fs$snappct201112,labels=fs$st)


Here any correlation is even harder to discern, though if I squint I can see a very slight tendency for states with greater fiscal freedom to have higher rates of SNAP participation.

I can also get a feel for how real these correlations are by looking at data for other years. In this case the only other data I have is for 2009; rather than plot it I’ll go straight to the correlation coefficients:

> cor(fs$econfree2009,fs$snappct200912)
[1] 0.02359412
> cor(fs$regfree2009,fs$snappct200912)
[1] -0.129513
> cor(fs$fiscfree2009,fs$snappct200912)
[1] 0.1000464

The correlations here are even smaller than those for 2011, at just over half the size. If I looked at the 2009 data first I’d be inclined to say that there’s almost no correlation at all between regulatory freedom and SNAP participation, and ditto for fiscal freedom. As before, the correlation of SNAP participation with economic freedom (the sum of the two other freedoms) is essentially zero.

To conclude, we have an index of economic freedom that was created through a fairly sophisticated process by an organization motivated to do a good job of it, given its goal to promote the benefits of free markets. And yet according to its own measures increasing the level of economic freedom in a given state seems to produce little if any improvement in the plight of the poor in that state, at least based on one plausible measure of poverty. On the other hand, progressives may be disconcerted as well: the sorts of policies advocated by free market think tanks under the banner of “economic freedom” don’t seem to be making poverty worse either.

Maybe I chose the wrong measure of poverty, or perhaps my amateur analysis is flawed in some other way. What’s the real story? Does economic freedom as measured by the Mercatus Center actually help the poor or not? I’ll leave the task of producing a final answer to that question to wiser heads than mine.

UPDATE: I replaced an incorrect image for the first scatter plot (SNAP participation vs. economic freedom for 2011) with the correct one.

UPDATE 2: I added the line to read the data into a data frame; for some reason this got garbled in the original post.

1. The values for economic freedom, regulatory freedom, and fiscal freedom in 2009 are from rows 239, 237, and 13 respectively and columns BB through CY inclusive in the 2007-2011 sheet in the “Freedom in the 50 States” data spreadsheet [XLS]; the values for 2011 are from the same rows, columns CZ through EW inclusive. (Note that the economic freedom values are calculated in the spreadsheet as the sum of the fiscal freedom and regulatory freedom values.)

The values for SNAP participation for 2009 are from the table “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Persons participating as share of the population” on page 4 of the December 2009 SNAP participation tables [PDF], part of the 2009 SNAP data published by the Food Research and Action Center. The corresponding values for 2011 are from the table ”Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Share of population participating” on page 4 of the December 2011 SNAP participation tables [PDF], linked to from the 2011 and 2012 SNAP data page on the same site.

Weekend reading: Wealth and politics

Here’s another in an intermittent series of posts on articles I found interesting; this one focuses on issues related to wealth, politics, and how they interact in various ways.

  • Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” (Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright). An intriguing glimpse into the political preferences of the 1% and above, based on a survey of wealthy individuals in the Chicago area. The results reinforce stereotypes for the most part: Compared to Americans in general, the wealthy put a higher priority on reducing budget deficits, and favor cutting social spending like Social Security, reducing regulations on business, lowering taxes, and so on; they are less supportive of public education and taxpayer-funded national health insurance. However they are in fact concerned about levels of economic inequality and supportive of better wages for lower income Americans, they just don’t believe government can or should do anything about this. The authors conclude: “On many important issues the preferences of the wealthy appear to differ markedly from those of the general public. Thus, if policy makers do weigh citizens’ policy preferences differentially based on their income or wealth, the result will not only significantly violate democratic ideals of political equality, but will also affect the substantive contours of American public policy.” (Note that I found this paper via a post on the political science blog The Monkey Cage.)
  • Why the Rich Don’t Give to Charity (Ken Stern). Summarizes some studies on charitable giving by the wealthy: The bottom 20% by income give at a rate more than double that of the top 20% by income, despite receiving little or no tax benefits from charitable giving. Wealthy people also give relatively more to universities, arts organizations, and the like: “Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, … [not] a single one … went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.” This not necessarily a function of the wealthy being more stingy or less empathetic by nature; some of the difference appears to be driven by the wealthy not having close exposure to the problems of those at the lower end of the income scale: “Wealthy people who lived in homogeneously affluent areas … were less generous than comparably wealthy people who lived in more socioeconomically diverse surroundings. It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.” (Note that Stern has written a book on U.S. charities, With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give. See also my past post on the question of balancing charitable giving with perceived need.)
  • Is Capitalism Moral” (Steven Pearlstein). The core thesis: The recent financial crisis and long-tern trends in income, employment, etc., “are forcing free-market advocates and their allies in the Republican Party to pursue a new strategy. Instead of arguing that free markets are good for you, they’re saying that they’re good—mounting a moral defense of free-market capitalism.” Although it’s an opinion piece, the article is somewhat in the “view from nowhere” mode of critiquing arguments on both sides of the question and urging advocates to do better. Pearlstein’s conclusion: “In our current debate over capitalism, too much attention is focused on whether, how or how much to redistribute the incomes that markets have produced, with too little focus on the institutional arrangements that determine how that income is divided up in the first place.”
  • The Administrative State vs. the Social Insurance State (Jason Brennan). Speaking of institutional arrangements, here’s what seems to be an emerging theme among some people libertarian by nature but also sensitive to considerations of social justice: “We could imagine a political-economic regime in which there is a completely or largely unregulated free market but in which the government taxes people to provide social insurance and some other welfare benefits. On its face, this regime seem much congenial to classical liberalism than a regime that provides no welfare benefits, but which regulates most enterprises, sets prices, controls entry into markets, and imposes licensing rules.” Real-world examples cited include Canada, Denmark, and others that have European-style social welfare and insurance systems but score better than the U.S. on many measures of economic freedom.
  • Return of the Oppressed” (Peter Turchin). A physicist turned social scientist and advocate of “cliodynamics” looks at the history of economic inequality in the U.S. and elsewhere, and sees it being driven by long-term cycles: “Upward trends in variables (for example, economic inequality) alternate with downward trends. And most importantly, the ways in which other parts of the system move can tell us why certain trends periodically reverse themselves. … Unequal societies generally turn a corner once they have passed through a long spell of political instability. Governing elites … realise that they need to … switch to a more co-operative way of governing, if they are to have any hope of preserving the social order.” Turchin sees the present trend in economic inequality peaking around 2020, along with other trends relating to political and social stability: “In other words, we are rapidly approaching a historical cusp, at which the U.S. will be particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval.”

I usually just post these articles with a minimum of editorial comment, but this time I thought it was worth adding a few of my own thoughts:

The political attitudes of the wealthy as surveyed by Page,, match up pretty closely from what you might conclude reading Wall Street Journal editorials and Heritage Foundation think pieces, or just listening to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” remarks. Thinking along Peter Turchin’s lines, it’s easy to see how this could be a self-reinforcing tendency: As more and more income flows to top earners, they will bear an increasingly greater share of the tax burden, and that in turn will lessen their willingness to support government spending on benefits for the poor and middle-class. At the same time the growing social, economic, and geographical isolation of the wealthy will likely lessen support for charitable giving directed at the poor, at least those in the U.S., whom many see as having it pretty good compared to the rest of the world.

As Pearlstein notes, this will all be accompanied by renewed debate over the moral foundations of capitalism. The second half of the 20th century saw a revival of classic liberal and libertarian political philosophy (e.g., by Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, and—in a more idiosyncratic way—Ayn Rand). This was followed by the revival of free-market politics in the U.S. and elsewhere, with Barry Goldwater as the harbinger and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as the realization, with the last 30 years seeing the working out of the resulting policies. The “bleeding heart libertarian” school of political philosophers, and the idea of promoting the “social insurance state” at the expense of the ”administrative state”, can be seen as an attempt to rework classic liberal and libertarian thought in the face of economic trends that might weaken popular support for the current economic system.

Given structural factors at work in U.S. politics, including the out-sized influence of small states seen in the Senate and the combination of gerrymandering and geographical clustering by party affecting the composition of the House of Representatives, I don’t see any major political shifts happening in the near term. Whether 2020 will mark a turning point, as Peter Turchin thinks, is an open question.