November 2011 Archives

OK, I Finally Saw It

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Because I somehow systemically undervalue my time, I finally sat through CNN's documentary on Gerrymandering Gerry-Rigged.  In an earlier post, I reported my reading of the reviews placed it par for the course in advocacy journalism in favor districting reform. 

Boy, was I wrong.  It was far worse.  It is completely uninformed by social science.  The only "expert" is a youngish researcher for Cook Political Reports who seems to mean well but provides almost no broader perspective.  Advocates for reform are never challenged an on their points of view the only opponents of reform who appear on camera are incumbent politicians whose conflicts of interest are obvious.

I was also annoyed by the piece's slick snarkiness.  Of course, I do understand that you can't build a TV piece based on the swing ratios, bias measures, and  counterfactual polarization estimates.  But I would like better analysis than "gerrymandering creates a merry-go-round where politicians get on and never get off." 

A Transparent Failure

In the week since it officially folded, there has been a lot of discussion of why the super committee (hereafter SC) failed, whether it was ever intended to "succeed", and what the future ramifications are.  So in the spirit of better-late-than-never, I will share a few of my thoughts on these topics.

Let me begin first as to whether the SC process was designed to succeed.  From the perspective of a student of legislative bargaining, I can think of at least three mechanisms that the SC could exploit to succeed under circumstances where the normal legislative process would fail.

  1. The Agenda Control Mechanism:  The SC would have the privilege of bringing a package of spending reductions and tax increases to the floor of each chamber that would be subject to up-or-down votes.  Consequently, any agreed upon bargains could not be undone by floor amendments.
  2. The Composition Mechanism:  The SC might have a composition that is more conducive to reaching an agreement than Congress as a whole.
  3. The Procedural Mechanism: The SC might adopt internal procedures that were more conducive to reaching an agreement than the procedures used in standing committees.

Orszag on Polarization and Inequality

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From Peter Orszag on Bloomberg. Could not have said it better myself:

It is striking that both income inequality and political polarization began to rise sharply in the U.S. in the mid- to late 1970s. Yet many pundits airily dismiss this connection, arguing that because blue states are, on average, higher-income than red states, the link between income and partisanship must be weak. Instead, they attribute increasing political polarization to the gerrymandering of legislative districts. Both of these assertions are empirically false.

CNN on Gerrymandering

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I did not get a chance to see the CNN Special Report on gerrymandering over the wekend.  Maybe it is all for the best as Jamelle Bouie at American Prospect suggests that it was entirely typical of journalistic treatments on the topic.  When it comes to the effects of gerrymandering on polarization, with few exceptions, journalists have focused on the talking points of reform activists without really engaging the now substantial social science literature on the topic.   


Congressional Insider Trading

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A recent 60 Minutes segment and a new book claim that members of Congress from both parties have benefited financially from inside information obtained in the course of their legislative duties.  Not surprisingly, the specific targets of these charges (Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, and Spencer Bacchus) have denied doing anything illegal or unethical.

Of course, a major part of the story is that these legislators could not have done anything illegal, because there are no laws against insider trading by members of Congress.  There are vague House ethics rules against profiting financially from their official positions, but the best I can tell the House ethics process has rarely if ever been used for allegations against congressional insider trading.

Obviously, I am in no position to evaluate the specific charges highlighted on 60 Minutes or the defenses offered by the individual legislators, but there is an excellent study by Jens Hainmeuller and Andy Eggers evaluating whether or not members of Congress earn excess returns on their stock portfolios.  If insider trading were pervasive, one would expect congressional portfolios to outperform the broader market.  But this is the exact opposite of what Hainmueller and Eggers find.  In fact, legislators are generally bad investors.  Their portfolios consistently underperform.  My personal hunch is that members are often forced into weak investments for political reasons and that this works against maximizing the value of their portfolio.   Hainmueller and Eggers find one important exception to congressional underperformance.  Legislators do well with their investments in firms located in their districts.  They find, counter to the presumed effects of insider trading, that these excess returns are not due to the timing of transactions, but to the superior selection of which local firms to invest. 

The Perry Brain Freeze

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I am not a fan of Rick Perry, but it strikes me that there is something fundamentally unserious about the way Rick Perry's mental lock during the last debate has been covered.  All most all of the coverage has focused on whether his campaign can recover after forgetting that he has proposed abolishing the Department of Energy.  It is as if debate performance were the sole qualification of the presidency.  Does anyone really think that if he were elected he would not eliminate the department because he forgot to?

The main issue of course is whether eliminating the Department of Energy (as well as the Education and Commerce departments) is good policy or not.  How much money would it save?  How well would any of the critical functions be performed in other departments?  Etc?  But journalists seem to ne dispositionally and perhaps intellectually incapable of focusing on such things.  It much easier and more fun to repeatedly show clips of a candidate saying "oops."

Turnout and Polarization

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The Monkey Cage has an interesting discussion about whether boosting turnout would reduce levels of polarization and partisanship among our elected officials.  While none of my work directly addresses the question of the effect of general election turnout on polarization, several of its strands would place me clearly in John Side's camp of skeptics.

  • Chapter 4 of Polarized America analyzes trends in turnout among different income groups during the period of expanding polarization (1972-2004).  There were several important take aways.  The first is that our evidence is consistent with earlier findings of McDonald and Popkin that there is no trend in turnout among the voting eligible population (VEP)  (roughly citizens over 18 who are not disqualified due to felony convictions).  The downward trend in participation by the voting age population (VAP) (all residents over 18) is caused by increased numbers of non-citizen residents and (to a lesser extent) disenfranchised felons.  Moreover we find that the relative incomes of voters and non-voters are roughly constant over the time period.  So it would seem that trends in turnout could hardly explain the increase in polarization.  Indeed, reversing the trends in VEP would mean reversing disenfranchisement laws and allowing non-citizens to vote.  It would be reasonable to expect that those reforms would shift the spectrum to the left but not de-polarize it. 


  • My other relevant work concerns the effects of participation in primary elections.  In this rejoinder to Richard Pildes, I report some estimates of the effect of primary election turnout on the extremity of a House member's NOMINATE score.  A key problem for such analysis is that turnout may itself be influenced by a candidate's position.  So I use the coincidence of competitive presidential, gubernatorial, and Senate primaries as exogenous variation in turnout.  The resulting IV estimates show no relationship between turnout and the winner's NOMINATE score.  I concede, however, that the effect of the instruments (the competitive primaries for higher office) is small.   The second piece of evidence is reported in my working paper with Eric McGhee, Seth Masket, Boris Shor, and Steve Rogers.  Here we find little evidence that the institution form of primary election effects polarization of state legislators.  This undercuts the common argument that open primaries reduce polarization by boosting participation.

But perhaps the most relevant piece of information about Bill Galston's original contention that mandatory voting would reduce polarization is a new paper by Anthony Fowler at Harvard.  In a careful study,  he looks at the effects of the adoption of compulsory voting in Australia.  He estimates that the causal effect of compulsory voting was a significant boost the left-wing Labour Party. So the effect of compulsory voting appears to have shifted Australian politics to the left rather than shore up the center.


New Working Paper

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Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and I have spent the last couple of years working on a manuscript on the political economy of the financial crisis.  That joint work has inspired my to write this paper modeling the effects of policy complexity on regulatory policymaking.  Although the argument is formalized, it is a simple one.  Policy will tend to be biased towards the interests of the regulated industry in areas where policymaking is complex.  I hope the paper contributes some useful insights to financial market regulation.

How My Testimony Was Covered

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Apparently, I am an enemy of democracy and interesting elections. 

Update:  The WSJ Blog was a little more even handed. 

Testimony before NJ State Redistricting Commission

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Below are my prepared remarks delivered before the NJ Congressional Redistricting Commission in their public hearing on October 11.

Contemporary politics in the United States is historically distinctive in at least two respects.  The first is the ever increasing polarization of political elites.  As my collaborators and I have documented, partisan differences in congressional voting behavior have grown dramatically to levels not seen since the early 20th century.  The second distinction is the historically low levels of competition in congressional elections.  This is especially true of the House of Representatives where 99 percent of incumbents standing for reelection were successful in the 2002 and 2004 elections. In the swing to the Democrats in 2006, no individual Democrats were defeated and even 89 percent of standing Republicans were reelected.  This pattern was essentially reversed in 2010.