Adam Dynes on Noisy Retrospection: The Effect of Party Control on Policy Outcomes – #35

>>STEVE: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.>>COREY: I’m Corey Washington, and we’re your
hosts for Manifold.>>COREY: Our guest today is Adam Dynes, assistant
professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Adam studies legislative behavior with a focus
on representation, distributive politics, and political parties. His research examines the behavior of U.S.
elected officials at the national, state, and local levels, using surveys, observational
data, and experimental methods. He’s the co-principal investigator of the
2012 and 2014 American Municipal Official Survey, the largest survey of U.S. local officials
conducted by political scientists with over 4,000 subjects, and the first to employ survey
experiments with this novel population.>>COREY: Welcome to Manifold, Adam.>>ADAM: Ah, thanks for having me.>>COREY: Our topic today is your recent paper,
Noisy Retrospection: The Effect of Party Control on Policy Outcomes. I have to confess that, after reading your
paper, my motivation to go out and vote in state and local elections was somewhat reduced.>>ADAM: Sorry. That was not my intent.>>COREY: Can you explain to us what is retrospective
voting?>>ADAM: Yeah, retrospective voting is this
idea that … It’s both a normative claim and a positive claim about how the world works. On the positive side, the positives, the positivist
take is it’s about do people vote based on the past performance of the candidates or
elected officials or incumbents that are running for office? And in its purest form, the idea is that a
voter shows up and they are just rewarding or punishing the party of power for how things
have panned out and, in particular, often the economy.>>ADAM: There’s other work that says retrospective
voting can also be used to make judgments about how a candidate or an incumbent is going
to behave in the future. You can say, “Well, if the economy’s done
well in the past under this party, if I vote for them again, maybe the economy’s going
to keep doing well.” That’s kind of the positivist, this is how
the world works idea of retrospective voting.>>ADAM: Normatively, it’s an argument about
how maybe voters don’t need to be as informed as we think they do in order to create accountability
in elections. The idea is you don’t need to know that much
about the candidates. You don’t really even need to know their platforms. You just need to know which party’s in power
and how are things going. Whether it’s your state or country, your city,
are things going okay? Are crime rates down? Is the economy growing? And if so, then reward the party in power. And if not, punish them. That’s kind of the gist of it.>>COREY: So what’s the question you investigated?>>ADAM: Underlying this idea of retrospective
voting is that the elected officials in office are going to make decisions and change policies
and do things that will impact the economy or impact crime or other social outcomes that
we might think voters should take into account when they’re voting, especially retrospectively.>>ADAM: So our question here is, well, in
the timeline of elections, in the two to four years after a party comes into power or a
new governor comes into office or a new majority in a state legislature, do we see evidence
that they have an effect on the economy and crime and other outcomes? Do we see evidence that they’re impacting
the very outcomes that proponents of retrospective voting say voters should take into account
in casting their vote.>>COREY: So you look at a huge range of policy
outcomes. I think 28 of them.>>ADAM: Yeah, plus there’s another … I think
we ended up with 45, because we did some additional ones. Some of it doesn’t have as wide of coverage
years wise, but, yeah, we tried to be very comprehensive.>>COREY: Can you give us the kind of highlights
as far as the policies, most important ones you think?>>ADAM: Yeah, [inaudible] going to be most
important are the economy, measures of economic performance, and the reason for that is because
those are ones that a lot of the research on retrospective voting looks at. And this is especially the case for presidential
elections but also governor elections, gubernatorial elections, congressional ones … of trying
to see do voters punish and rewed the incumbent based on how well the economy’s doing.>>ADAM: Yeah, so we have measures of economic
growth in a state. We have measures of unemployment. We have some measures of income inequality,
housing prices, income growth, the number of businesses even and the economic range,
and then with a variety of crime, violent crimes, robberies, property crimes, murder
rates. I think those are some that are probably quite
key or could be really important in state elections.>>COREY: What did you find?>>ADAM: Overall, you look across all these
measures, and there’s some that measure health, family, environment, a bit on education, a
bit on turnout, it mostly looks like noise. It mostly looks like … the point estimates,
the estimate of the effect of barely having Republicans take control of the House of Representatives
a the state level or the state Senate or the governor’s office has no effect across all
of these measures. So whether it’s the economy or crime, education,
environment, we don’t find consistent evidence that they’re having an effect on any of these
things.>>STEVE: So it seems like one possibility
could just be that there are many factors affecting those measurable, government only
being one of them, and so, even if the parties did what they said they would do and if there
was a significant difference between what they would do, depending on which party was
in power, that, nevertheless, there would only be a small effect on those observables.>>ADAM: Yeah. One of the issues here is maybe we give too
much credit to government and its impact on a lot of these big, macro-level outcomes. We forget it’s a complicated system with lots
of different things that affect our economy and crime rates, some of which are beyond
easy things for government to control. So that’s definitely one possibility.>>COREY: One thing you do, in the paper, though,
is that you actually look at persistent control, which has the possibility of … restrict
your analysis to cases where government might have a larger effect than if a party is in
power for, say, a four-year period.>>ADAM: Yeah. Let’s say Democrats have had control of the
governorship for 10 years in a row. Do we see effects even after that 10-year
period? To answer, we don’t.>>ADAM: You have to caution, and we do have
language in the paper. There’s a bit of caution here in that we’re
not … Causal identification is not as strong when we’re looking at the effects of persistent
control. So when we’re looking at these short-term
effects, we’re better able to say it’s almost like an experiment given the methods that
we’re using, but when you’re looking at consistent control, there might be concerns that maybe
something else is having an effect on things that we’re not controlling for.>>ADAM: But, nonetheless, it still seems to
be the case that we mostly see kind of noise, that it looks like the results all center
around zero. And when there are effects, they seem to be
kind of random. They’re not consistent across the different
models and regressions that we run.>>STEVE: So beyond the specific results that
you present in the paper, are there cases where you actually, though, do believe that
the outcome of an election actually affect a measurable, societal policy or outcome? I could give examples like 2016 election effect
on immigration, 2016 election effect on budget deficit, 2016 election effect on tax rates.>>COREY: 2008 election effect on insurance
levels.>>STEVE: Yeah, health insurance.>>ADAM: Yes. Some of this … There’s a lot of things going
here. Some of it might be they implement a policy,
it does have some effects, but it’s actually kind of targeted in a sense. So let’s say a state implements Medicaid expansion. You can say, “Look, we have” … If we were
measuring the number of people access to that program, it would increase. We’re trying to look at little downstream
to say, “Okay, well, even if you increase Medicaid. Are we seeing some effects on health outcomes
overall?” And even in that case, even if I think Medicaid
was expanded, it could be that, yes, it increases access, it has some positive effect for those
people, but, because it’s increasing access in the state by 20,000 people or 40,000 people
or 100,000, but you’ve got a state of 5 million people, the effects end up getting washed
out. It’s a small effect. It’s almost too small to pick up.>>ADAM: That’s very possible that these things
still have an effect. I’m not trying to say state politics don’t
matter or who controls the government doesn’t matter. It’s more of just it maybe doesn’t have as
big of a societal impact as we might think.>>COREY: I think you in fact get this. I think people intuitively know this, because
many people vote on a fairly personal basis. A large number of Trump voters say they voted
for him just because they wanted him to lower their taxes and they weren’t particularly
concerned about other things and they kind of ignored the noise that he was stating,
but they thought they’d pay for your taxes.>>ADAM: Maybe a bit of what goes on, too,
is it’s changing who the winners and losers are, but overall the economy is looking similar. Let’s go with … You were mentioning the
2016 election, the election of President Trump. Yeah, it’s definitely the case they changed
tax rates. But if we’re looking at the economy, would
I say I’ve seen real differences in the economy from end of Obama into beginning of Trump? When I look at the stock exchange … I know
this isn’t very sophisticated analysis. This is just me looking at the stock returns. It just looks like it was going up at the
end of Obama. Especially once we were coming out of the
recession, it’s going up. And Trump gets elected, and, oh, it just keeps
on going up.>>STEVE: But that’s a very … There are obviously
many factors affecting … not to mention the Federal Reserve or trade relations, oil
prices, that are totally out of Trump’s control. The question is are there not things that
voters are aware of where actually, depending on who wins the election, the policies implemented
are significantly different, and it seems like, at least in the last election, there
are significant differences one could point to what the Hillary world would look like
and what the Trump world currently looks like.>>ADAM: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s just more with our particular paper,
would I expect to see big differences in the economy? And my answer is kind of I’m not sure. I’m not sure they can do enough. They could. You could go … And here’s the thing: they
could go wild and you could go push policy that’s going to have wild inflation or just
stop funding public schools altogether and police forces. And, yeah, I think we would pick up those
effects if you went that wild. I would expect that to have an impact.>>ADAM: But also part of what’s going on here
is there’s constraints on what political actors do in that they’re constrained … some of
it by reelection. In some way, where retrospective voting can
come in is. if people try to be too extreme, they know
there’s this threat that they could get kicked out of office. If they push policy that’s just obviously
disastrous and it seems very obvious that they’re to blame, I think that’s a concern.>>ADAM: Even Trump and take immigration, there’s
not … And maybe Trump’s wanted to do more, but there’s also been a strong pull to the
middle, and even some Republicans, they’re not funding his wall, because there’s plenty
of Republicans in districts where they know it’s not that popular. So Trump keeps putting up a fight and getting
up and saying, “I need more funding for the wall,” and they keep passing these spending
bills that don’t really give him much funding for it.>>STEVE: I don’t think either the Democratic
Party or the establishment Republicans are particularly supportive of Trump’s views on
immigration, so it’s not surprising he’s having trouble getting stuff done.>>ADAM: But some of that same logic applies
here probably in our data as well, in our results.>>STEVE: There’s a very cynical view some
people have that there’s a uni-party or that politicians are just liars and what they promise
in the campaign is not what they do when they actually get in office, maybe that moneyed
interests actually secretly control what’s happening in the state house. If that were the case, if there were sort
of hidden forces really controlling how government conducts its business, then that would be
consistent with your data, because basically it doesn’t matter who gets elected.>>ADAM: Yeah. It could be, yes. But I don’t necessarily, maybe I’m too optimistic,
but I don’t think it’s necessarily because there’s monied interests have taken over completely. I do think they have an impact. You could argue, “Well, maybe it’s because”
… One I use: “Well, maybe Democrats and Republicans are pushing similar policies on
the economy, and they’re pro-business, because they’re worried about business donors or these
moneyed interests.” Yes, that is possible. It could explain some of it. But it’s also the case that Democrats and
Republicans do pursue different policies. We don’t look at this in my paper. In my paper I had John Holbein.>>ADAM: But a paper by some other researcher
does, where they try to say, “Is it the case that Democratic … almost controlling for
everything you can imagine, using some sophisticated methods, if you end up with a Republican governor
instead of a Democrat governor, do we see differences in the policies that they push
forward?” And the answer is yes. You do see a difference. So it is the case Republican governors, Republican
state legislators, when they come to power, especially even when they just barely have
control, marginal control, they push for policies that move … they push policies into a more
conservative directions, and Democrats in a more liberal.>>ADAM: So that kind of goes against that
they’re just totally bought off necessarily. They are pushing for different policies.>>COREY: [crosstalk] … there’s also policies
that relate to criminal justice, which aren’t so constrained by economic actors such as
big business, and as far as I can tell the effects on crime rates are pretty small, too.>>ADAM: Yeah. We don’t see a big difference there either. And some of this, too, could be that there’s
different ways to achieve the same outcomes. You can imagine even a bundle of policies
that some actually help reduce crime rates and others are maybe actually contributing
to it and they’re canceling each other out.>>ADAM: There’s also I think, even with crime,
bigger factors that come into play. There’s economists who argue about how basically
the rise in crime in the ’70s and ’80s can be attributed in a significant portion to
exposure to lead paint and that the decline since then … I’ve seen serious presentations
and empirical evidence on that. Yes, policy comes into play on that and trying
to ban lead paint, but you’re not going to see … Anyway, you’re not going to see things
that Democrats, Republicans are doing right now that are now affecting how lead affected
crime rates.>>STEVE: That goes back to the point of you
should look at variables that you’re sure are relatively sensitive to policy decisions
by government, otherwise why look at … Some spots are probably relatively independent.>>STEVE: I wanted to ask you about some work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this
researcher at Princeton named Martin, I’m not sure I’m saying his name right, Gilens,
G-I-L-E-N-S.>>ADAM: Oh, Gilens. Yeah, Marty Gilens.>>STEVE: Gilens, yes. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites,
Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.>>ADAM: Yeah, I’m familiar with this work.>>STEVE: So that’s a slightly more nuanced
version of kind of what we’ve been discussing, where his claim is that, regardless of citizens’
preferences, average persons’ preferences, the outcomes, the policies enacted, tend to
only be enacted if the economic elites or certain groups with disproportionate influence
also agree with the general populace, and he has evidence to that effect. So it could be the case that, in cases where
elites are not controlling what happens, yeah, the election actually makes a difference,
maybe in criminal justice. That’s one example perhaps. But when it comes to some very sacred cows,
it doesn’t matter what the general population wants. The elites won’t allow it to happen.>>ADAM: Yes. I think there’s some truth especially to that. Some of it may not necessarily be for nefarious
reasons. Some of it could just be … I don’t know. Who are often our elected officials? Oh, elites, come from upper class. Oh, they share lots of similar preferences. And you’re right. They’re just doing the same things that other
upper-class people would do if they had gotten elected as well.>>ADAM: I do want to point out. There is some caveats on Gilens’s work. I guess Gilens and Page I think is the author.>>STEVE: That’s right.>>ADAM: One of those, and they admit to this,
is that on lots of policies the poor, the middle class, average median American in terms
of income, and the wealthy often agree. There’s lot of policies where we don’t see
a big difference in their preferences. They do narrow it down on those policies and
on preferences where you do see differences between the wealthy and middle class.>>ADAM: I think the way they would push back,
and they do this in some of their papers, they’d say, “Oh, come on, Adam. Yeah, sure, they agree on lots of policies,
maybe even 80%. So yes, we see a correlation overall between
the preferences of even the poor and policy outcomes. But if we really want to know who’s having
influence, you want to look at it when they disagree. Where do we see a correlation?” And that’s sort of they would push back.>>ADAM: I do want to point that out to make
it sounds like not everything’s just in the favor of the wealthy, at least because there’s
lots of things where the wealthy and poor agree. That’s not necessarily the happiest interpretation.>>ADAM: There are some articles that try to
push back, though, and say are there measures of the preferences of the wealthy. How accurate are they? Because it’s really hard to measure the preferences
of the wealthy. It’s a hard sample to get.>>STEVE: I think there’s widespread misunderstanding
of their preferences, especially in 2008, because wealthy donors tended to trend Democratic
when you got to the very high income levels. The conventional view was that really wealthy
people were uniformly Republican.>>ADAM: Yeah. Are you saying the 2016 election?>>COREY: I was talking about 2008 and stuff
and ’12. I think there was just a conventional view
prior to that time that, the richer you are, the more you wanted your taxes cut, the more
you’re going to support Republican policies. But I think perhaps shifts in social views
and I think many wealthy people may have become uncomfortable with the rising levels of inequality
that a lot of high net worth people were actively backing Democrats and continue to.>>ADAM: Yeah. I think 2016 pushed that more that way, too. You saw more than you used to see where … Anyway,
you just saw there wasn’t a big difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in
terms of wealth of voters and education [inaudible], and some of that is because of changing coalitions
in the party.>>ADAM: But the other thing … There’s plenty
of evidence that wealthy, definitely on taxes, have a much more libertarian view, that conservative
view wanting lower taxes, surprise, surprise, and that matters. So that policy difference, with the Gilens
work, you’re going to see differences there.>>STEVE: Yeah, taxes are not obviously the
only issue that separate the wealthy from the rest of the population. Immigration is a good example, because it’s
generally working-class people that are more negatively affected by immigration, and wealthy
people just get cheaper servants out of it. So, consequently, you can imagine the elites
are fine with mass immigration and average people might have more problems with it.>>ADAM: Yeah. Another thing I do want to talk about a little
bit here is on the research, especially with our project, with retrospective voting, one
of our bigger points is to say, “Well, if you think that voters should vote based on
how the economy’s doing, because it has these direct ties to things that elected officials
have control over, well, then you might end up with voters still rewarding and punishing
elected officials based on outcomes that, in the short come, they weren’t affecting.” It’s not to say that they can’t have effects
on them and in the long term that they’re not having effects, that these policies don’t
matter. It’s just that, in the short term, it’s not
helping voters act as if they’re more informed by voting based on how crime rates are doing
and their economy. They’re likely, especially based on our results,
blaming state officials for things that they didn’t effect.>>ADAM: So that leads to a question of how
should voters be casting their votes, what should they be focusing on.>>COREY: I’d like to focus on the first point
you made, because I think it’s really important. I think your idea is that there’s no clear
evidence that state policies affect outcomes, but people think they do. People are effectively reacting to noise. So, if you think you’re voting rationally
on the base of an outcome, you may be deluded. You may, in fact, think that party A had effect
on policy B when, in fact, they don’t. So you’re systematically making votes based
on effectively mist.>>STEVE: Or maybe people are just voting on
mood affiliation.>>COREY: That’s right. A lot of people just vote party lines anyways.>>ADAM: In some ways our research is saying
maybe that’s actually not so bad.>>COREY: Or at least it’s not any less rational
that somebody thinks they’re objectively assessing the evidence.>>ADAM: Yeah, because what we’re trying to
show here is if a voter is really trying to say, “Okay, I’m going to try to figure out
whether I should blame my governor for what I see in term of some of these downstream
effects in crime, the economy, health outcomes, environment,” and, yeah, try as they might,
they’re probably going to end up blaming or rewarding for things that outside of their
control, and you know what might be better is try to vote for them based on the policies
they support and what you think those policies are going to do. And it turns out party’s probably a pretty
good short cut for figuring that all out.>>COREY: But how’s that any more objectively
rational if these policies in fact don’t have an effect? How’s voting what policy you think might do,
because the policy doesn’t have an effect, rational?>>ADAM: Well, I think you can still argue
… I’m still holding out that these policies do have some effect, even if it’s not big
enough to pick up on a statewide basis. So maybe Medicaid expansion isn’t going to
life health outcomes across the whole state, but it probably is going to have some effects
for those who now quality who didn’t before, especially maybe financially, but maybe those
additional 30,000 aren’t enough in a state of 5 million people where we’re going to see
it affect the overall economy or health outcome.>>STEVE: Corey, if you were hiring a football
coach, and one coach would result in a 56% win percentage and the other one would result
in a 55% win percentage, which is basically impossible to measure in the coming seasons,
you still might prefer to hire the 56% win percentage coach, right?>>COREY: Of course. The fact that you can’t detect a difference
doesn’t mean there isn’t one.>>STEVE: It could be rational.>>COREY: Correct. But you, in fact, are unable to determine
those percentages.>>STEVE: I agree. That’s a separate question.>>COREY: But back to Adam’s point. He’s making kind of a Rawlsian point here,
too, as far as I can say, which is, okay, maybe don’t focus on the economy as a whole
or the state as a whole. Maybe you focus on a certain interest group. If you’re selfish, this isn’t the Rawlsian
part, you focus on yourself, but if you’re not, maybe focus on the most vulnerable and
say, “Perhaps these policies are washed if you average over all the citizens, but there
may be a small percent of people that are affected.” This is kind of self-serving. It’s the argument I make to all of my left-leaning
friends who say they want to leave the country when insert Republican gets elected.>>STEVE: Unfortunately, they never do.>>COREY: My view is, fortunately, they don’t,
because if you leave, in fact, you’re going to leave people really vulnerable to policy
changes in the country, and they’re going to suffer and you’ll be in Canada with national
health insurance.>>ADAM: I have to chime in a little aside
here. My wife’s from Canada. The thing that kind of made her want to pull
her hair out is when conservatives were saying, “If Hillary Clinton gets elected, I’m moving
to Canada.” She has some friends who would post this. She’s like, “Do they not realize … What
policies … They want socialized medicine, is what they want?”>>STEVE: Canada might have a more reasonable
immigration policy than the United States.>>COREY: It’s got a different one. We can probably get into that.>>STEVE: Let me get back to voters. Are you familiar with a book by Bryan Caplan? He’s an economist.>>ADAM: A little bit. Which one?>>STEVE: It’s called The Myth of the Rational
Voter. It’s in actually a book that he wrote. And I just want to read something for both
you and Corey from that book. “In polls taken since 1945, a majority of
Americans have been unable to name a single branch of government, define the terms liberal
and conservative, explain what the Bill of Rights is. More than two-thirds have reported that they
do not know the substance of Roe v. Wade, what the Food and Drug Administration does. More than half do not know that states have
two senators, and three-quarters do not know the length of a senate term. More than 50% of Americans cannot name their
Congressman. 40% cannot name either of their senators. Voters’ notions of government spending are
wildly distorted. The public believes that foreign aid consumed
24% of the federal budget, for example, though it actually consumes about 1%.”>>STEVE: So I would just say that the empirical
evidence is that arguing about small bits of rationality on the part of voters is just
crazy, because the evidence is so strong that they’re not even following the basic facts.>>ADAM: Oh yeah. Everything Caplan says there, it’s like amen. Most political scientists would nod and say,
“Yep. That is the state of voter knowledge generally.” And this also feeds this debate about retrospective
voting.>>ADAM: There’s early work, this classic book,
this giant, huge book, The American Voter. It came out like 1960, and it’s this early
work trying to look at voter behavior, how are voters choosing, trying to understand
public opinion, especially in the context of an election using surveys. It’s this groundbreaking work. And the authors, very well known in political
science, their conclusion is voters do not know much. They’re very ignorant, and mostly they see
a world through a partisan lens, and it seems to be their partisanship drives lots of their
behavior, even their preferences, that they are partisan first. They figure out what party they’re in early
on in life, and then from there they figure out their preferences on policies.>>ADAM: So this has been a theme throughout
modern, contemporary political science and trying to use surveys and scientific methods
to try and understand voters, that they just do not know much. So early work on retrospective voting, this
is where someone like another famous political scientist, V.O. Key, tries to push back and say, “Well, you
know what, there’s this work that’s trying to say voters are idiots, but I’m going to
push back against that,” and he puts forward retrospective voting as this way to save voters
from their ignorance, that they don’t need to know much. They just need to know is the economy doing
well.>>ADAM: This debate that we’re chiming in
on and your quote here from Caplan is part of that ongoing debate. Can voters overcome their ignorance? Can they use shortcuts? And we’re trying to say, “Well, retrospective
voting isn’t going to save us from the ignorant voters.”>>STEVE: I think people who have a kind of
cynical or realist view of the state of voters’ knowledge and rationality, when they look
at the … I’m sorry if I’m not saying his name right. Is it Gilens? When they look at the Gilens’s results, they’re
relieved, because they say, “Okay, these voters don’t really know anything. So when they disagree with potentially better-informed
elites, I’m actually relieved that the elites actually get their way. Maybe you get better government from that.”>>ADAM: That comes up in my classes. Some of this is with my students. We’ve talked about the Marty Gilens readings
from time to time in some of my classes, and that’s often what comes up. Now, of course, being a professor at Brigham
Young University, my sample of students probably looks a little more conservative than undergrads
at your average university, and this is also what is often brought up, is “Actually, I
feel reassured,” for the very reason you say. Now, some of it I wonder is “Are you reassured? Is it because you like the wealthy making
decisions or is it because they’re pushing policy in a direction you also like?” It’s hard to separate those two.>>ADAM: But I think there is a concern is
that there are some issues, and this is where even if voters are very ignorant about lots
of facts about politics, even if who controls state government isn’t having an impact on
policy outcomes in the short term, so retrospective voting isn’t going to save us from their ignorance,
I still think, though, that there is a case that there are some things where you don’t
need to be informed a ton about politics but your opinion’s going to really matter.>>ADAM: So pretend there’s a country where
states are actively oppressing certain groups within the state, like, I don’t know, segregation,
and think about in the south and the Civil Rights Movement. I think you could go back and say, “Let’s
measure political knowledge among African-Americans in the south.” Now, we might be really surprised. Maybe it was adactyly quite high, especially
as they’re mobilizing. But even before then … Even if I found in
survey evidence their knowledge about who their senators are “Oh, they don’t really
know. They don’t really know that they have two
senators.” I’d say, “Yeah, but I’m still happy they’re
voting, because on this issue, they have a lot of information.”>>STEVE: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that
democracy, even if you paint it in this sort of very negative way, it does create a safety
valve release, so if the government is really tanking the economy or it’s really oppressing
a certain minority population, people can sense that, it’s a very macroscopic thing
to sense, and then vote these guys out of office. I think everybody who likes democracy would
say it will always have that positive feature.>>COREY: But I think Adam’s result actually
rationalizes people’s not paying attention to the details in politics. If in fact there aren’t very many differences,
you should focus your cognitive energy some place else. And look, we have a running discussion on
this show about the culture wars. People focus on art censorship. They focus on abortion. They focus on lots of culture issues. And, to some extent, your results actually
make that seem sort of rational, because if party control’s not going to affect the economy,
not going to affect policing, it might actually affect these other things. Maybe it doesn’t, but at least they’re open
possibility. But people would be reasonable not to say,
“I’m going to vote for Trump because he’s going to improve or disprove the economy,”
because that’s probably not going to happen, but he may affect X social issue that I care
about.>>COREY: So, in fact, people may be pursuing
what’s thought to be a kind of bounded rationality approach to politics. Think about the things that matter. Don’t throw in stuff that’s not really relevant.>>STEVE: Many is the cab driver that when
you talk to him he’ll say, “Oh, these politicians are all the same. Nothing’s going to change. Why do I pay attention to it? I’ll follow the Red Sox because I like the
Red Sox,” and it’s not irrational. I think, even, from a purely utilitarian economic
perspective, what are you getting for your vote? You’re going to spend a bunch of time reading
stuff, educating yourself, and dragging yourself to the polling booth. What do you get from that? You’re barely influencing the election. You’re one-ten-millionth of the electorate
or something. Even from that perspective, it’s not particularly
rational to vote.>>ADAM: I think what you’re pointing out here,
Steve, lines up probably … Caplan would be nodding his head and saying, “Oh, and why
is it that people are so ignorant? It’s because perhaps, deep down, they know
their vote’s not going to change the outcome.” But there’s lots of things where your decision
does change the outcome, like your decision of what thing to buy, your decisions of how
much work to put into your job versus something else, how much time to put into a relationship
is outcome consequential.>>STEVE: I don’t know if it’s Caplan that
makes this point. Maybe it’s some other people. But what’s interesting is if you ask someone
to, say they’ve lived in a particular state for 10 years, and you ask them to analyze,
“Who got elected? What did they do? And did it improve or not?” Generally almost nobody can give you that
analysis.>>STEVE: But if you ask them, “How was the
football coach at BYU for the last 10 years,” they can actually tell you, “Oh, four seasons
ago we went to this bowl, but we lost. The guy dropped the pass. That wasn’t the coach’s fault.” They’ll give you incredibly detailed, nuanced
analysis of that, but they can’t give it to you for politics.>>ADAM: That kind of counters what I was pointing
out. In what way were their decisions related to
the football team consequential for the outcomes?>>STEVE: It’s mood affiliation. They like it. It’s not that they’re getting a tangible benefit. They just like it. They’re really seriously interested.>>COREY: Happiness is pretty tangible actually. I think people move towards pleasure, avoid
pain.>>ADAM: Another thing I do want to point out
about … This idea is called it’s rational to be ignorant. One thing I do want to point out, I don’t
think … I said it in a way as if somebody really realizes their vote doesn’t matter,
but there are plenty of people who vote and act as if they think their one vote’s going
to change an outcome, and it rarely ever will, very rarely, but I do think if you found out
that an election was going to come down to your vote, oh, boy, I think a lot of people
would suddenly … ears would perk up and they would probably start … they’d feel
a lot more pressure to know what the heck was going on and what they’re voting on.>>COREY: So what do you guys think of this
pretty conventional philosophical argument for voting that, if you vote, you’re participating
in the body politic, you’re involved in civil society. That’s an intrinsic good to take an interest
in civic matters. Independent of the utilitarian consequences,
we should all try to be part of the polis, and this involves informing yourself and engaging
in your civic ritual.>>STEVE: I think, as an ideal, that’s very
laudable. As a realist, though, I would say that the
fraction of people that are going to achieve that is quite small.>>ADAM: I often will think about it in my
classes when I teach about why do people vote and who ends up voting and why are people
voting, is it rational to vote, is why don’t we think about informed voting as a public
good. We would all benefit if people were participating
and were doing so well informed. Unfortunately, it’s also a big collective-action
problem, because this is a public good, so it’s not in anyone’s individual incentive
to become informed or actually really even to vote necessarily, except we have all of
these psychological benefits we get from voting.>>ADAM: And my students, usually their reaction
is “So you’re telling us we shouldn’t vote?” And I’m always like, “Well, no. I’m not” … I still vote. Maybe that’s weird, and maybe it’s because
I am maybe clinging a bit to what Corey has said here and I’m still trying to say, “There’s
this public good here, and, gosh darn it, I’m going to be a public good provider. I’m going to try to do my part and try to
be knowledge and show up, even though I know my vote’s not going to change the outcome,
and I’m going to try to resist my partisan biases and this whole tribal politics and
rooting for my team and voting for my team just because it’s my team. I’m going to try to fight that.” But I’m not sure, in the end, am I making
the world better, because ultimately lots of people who end up voting, they’re not going
to do that. They’re going to be under social pressure. But I still hold on to this.>>STEVE: Adam, I’d like to ask you a historical
question. I don’t really know the answer to this. But it sort of came up in a previous podcast
that we did. The claim was that after the fall of Athens,
for over a thousand years, democracy was typically referred to as, in negative terms, as irrational
mob rule, as opposed to rule by wise people, and that was sort of just an accepted cultural
value for a long time. We have a different cultural value, but who
says that we’re actually getting better outcomes? Wouldn’t that be a very sort of base reality
thing that would be difficult to check? So is that history actually true of how people
wrote and talked about democracy for long periods of time?>>ADAM: I am not an expert of Athenian democracy,
big disclaimer there. I can’t say I’m a big expert on the founding,
but I teach quite a bit in my intro, especially American politics courses, and I’ve done my
readings on it. Very much this is the case, especially among
the Founding Fathers. They were very skeptical of democracy. It’s almost a swear word, where they’re like,
“No, we don’t want democracy.” And they’re thinking Athenian, the people
are the rulers and they’re deciding maybe we have a lottery and we choose people at
random and they are the legislature and they’re choosing things. They definitely had big qualms with … from
the standpoint of concerns about mob rule, and you’ll see a lot of this in their writings,
especially James Madison, these concerns about anarchy and concerns about the passions, how
can we bridle these passions or the passion of factions, for instance, of groups that
are able to oppress others and rise up in power and push for policies that are against
the public interest. That’s a big concern of theirs.>>STEVE: The context in which this topic … It
sort of tangentially was mentioned. We didn’t have time to delve into it in the
other podcast. We were talking to someone who was kind of
a China expert, and we were talking about cultural differences and why certain cultures
were, at a given moment in time, willing to assume that democracy was by far the best
mode of governance, whereas some other thing, like technocracy with regular polling of the
population, which is, one could argue, what they’re doing in China now, might be better. One of the things I was saying is it’s not
clear to me exactly why certain cultures or groups of people just accept a very primary
assumption about what’s working better or not working better.>>COREY: It’s probably simply their political
tradition. I think that’s the most obvious explanation. People accept what’s gone before them.>>ADAM: And that’s even the case in the US. Even though I just said our Founding Fathers
were very skeptical especially about mass democracy, especially in the sense of Athens,
they still, though, have had over 100 years history in the US of having representative
democracy. That’s starting with colonial governance and
then developing into colonial legislatures that look very much like the state legislatures
we even have today but also back then that developed into those state legislatures once
the US is breaking free from Great Britain, and so they have a lot of experience, even
coming from England, this idea of a representative democracy, on some level, even if that representation
is the elites in your town and some lords who are in the House of Lords. They’ve had hundreds of years of this, of
this idea of having elites chosen in some way by the people or they’re supposed to be
somehow reflective of people on the ground in some way making decisions.>>ADAM: Anyway, that’s important. There’s arguments that the American Revolution
is a conservative revolution. It’s going back to what they had before and
kicking out, just saying, “Hey, England, stop doing these things. Just leave us alone. Let’s go back to what we were doing.”>>ADAM: And it builds over time, and we constantly
are expanding democracy, constantly building little by little from there.>>STEVE: I think that the modern way that
the people in the west talk about the rise of the west in the last few hundred years,
you can point to multiple factors which could have contributed to their success, Industrial
Revolution, use of markets, and the third one is democratic rule, and I guess what’s
being questioned now, because of the rise of China, is whether that third one really
is absolutely necessary or could be replaced by something else, and I think that that’s
->>ADAM: Yeah, there’s arguments you have to
have economic development first and now you can afford to have democracy, and you have
this middle class that is demanding it and then you get it. Get rich first and then …>>STEVE: But I think one could even go further
and say … back to the end-of-history question, even at the end of history, you might, after
you’re a wealthy, technologically advanced country, you might still not want the crowd,
the mob, the people that don’t know how many senators they have, to be deciding policies
for your country, and maybe you only let them be a kind of safety valve so that, if you
find they’re very, very dissatisfied, then you react to that, but in general you have
a bunch of technocrats making all the decisions.>>COREY: I don’t want to push the relativist
point of view, but, presumably, this argument is being made from some point of view. Is this the argument being made by the leaders
of the country saying it’s better off to have the public not involved? Is this argument being made by an economically
dominant non-politician?>>STEVE: Well, the debate that I’m discussing
is actually mainly between political theorists from the west and from China. So increasingly you will have forums where
political theorists from both sides are debating the merits and demerits of their relative
systems, and it’s now a serious discussion, post-Fukuyama, that, oh, maybe there’s this
other ways to do things. It seems like there always has been another
way to do things, because the proof, the evidence that democracy was really that great I think
was never really there actually.>>COREY: You didn’t have a control case actually
to compare to, and you do now.>>STEVE: Because you have so many other factors
going on. You could say, “Oh, America thrived.” Yeah, America exterminated an indigenous population,
took over a whole continent. How could you not thrive if you were doing
that?>>COREY: Had free labor from slaves.>>STEVE: Yeah, free labor from … It’s not
clear which of the factors that favored America made America so great. Was democracy really the key ingredient or
was it not? I think that case has never really been fully
made, and now it’s being sort of vigorously confronted by people who are from a different
system.>>ADAM: I give a lot of credence to democracy
of at least it’s this safety valve. Anyway, we didn’t do anything about surveillance
state on here, though, the pluses and minuses of …>>STEVE: It’s funny because, as far as I know,
the NSA is actually Hoovering up. But you’re in Utah. There’s some huge data center near you which
is storing … Gee, what’s it storing? If you do some back of the envelope calculations
for how much data they’re storing, they’re basically getting everything. Oh, who’s living in a surveillance state?>>COREY: I guess we probably don’t know. I have a couple kind of technical questions
to ask. One sort of aside, I always want to throw
something out to you guys. Maybe the main motivation for voting is not
so much that you think your vote’s gong to change anything, but, in the case of, say,
high stakes national elections, you’re trying to mitigate the downside risk, the very tiny
downside risk that you’re not voting causes the other person to win. I think people know it’s unlikely, they know
it’s almost certainly not going to be the case, but they don’t want to be the person
who did not vote and then Trump got in. I’m just throwing it out there. That may be a possible motivation.>>STEVE: Or Hillary.>>COREY: Or Hillary, yeah, possibly.>>ADAM: Some of those psychological benefits
can be, one, is rooting for me team, and I feel good. I went out. I did my part. Yeah, go team. It’s showing up to the game. And maybe your team’s not that great, you
don’t like them that much, but you really hate that other team. So, yeah, you did your part to boo against
the other team and voting.>>COREY: So this partly unifies the explanation
why people care about football and politics. At some level, it’s the same team.>>COREY: The second thing is your paper focuses
on state elections, and you don’t do national. Is it just because there’s not enough data
at the national level to a get a fully powered study on this topic?>>ADAM: Yeah. A big part of this is, with the methods we’re
employing, we needed more observations. With 50 states, for 40, 50 years, you can
get a lot more statistical power to get at these things.>>ADAM: There are questions, like does it
translate up to the national government. Is that kind of what you’re getting at?>>COREY: Exactly, yeah.>>ADAM: There’s some reasons to say it may
not. At the same time, the one reason we think
that the national government has so much influence on the economy possibly often is because of
the Federal Reserve, which is actually very … What’s the word I’m looking for? Very sheltered from …>>STEVE: It’s quasi-independent.>>ADAM: Yeah. So there’s part of me … Some might say,
“Oh, the federal government’s where are the action is.” Okay. Well, one, lately, they’re not passing that
many policies. But then a lot of their biggest levers they
have actually delegated to the Federal Reserve, so you might expect to see some similar results. And you have the similar constraints where
elected officials are thinking about the median voter. Party leaders, like Nancy Pelosi, she’s thinking
about her representatives from swing districts and how does she keep her people there, which
all makes it so the policies you push may not be so extreme, even though Democrats,
Republicans do different things, but maybe not as extreme as people might think and say. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar
results if I could have the same data at the national level.>>STEVE: It does seem to me … I sort of
went through a list at the beginning of the podcast that there are a lot of issues where
the two parties really would try to do very different things, and then the question would
be are the things they do really impactful. And on topics like immigration, budget deficit,
tax rates, federal courts, gun rights, abortion rights, Brexit, to take a European example,
or not European example, British example, whether the British would adopt the euro instead
of keeping the pound, these are ones where I think there really are clear impacts, most
people would agree, and the parties are very polarized on which of the policies they favor.>>COREY: Deficit’s kind of an interesting
one, because it used to actually divide Democrats from Republicans, and now either nobody seems
to care or it seems that it’s actually intra-party, where there’s actually some divergence on
that issue.>>STEVE: I think you could argue very strongly
that Trump blew up the federal deficit. Obama did it, but he kind of he had to do
it because of the financial crisis.>>ADAM: Some of it is because we’re on autopilot
with our spending and federal budget. When I say autopilot, what I mean is they’re
not doing appropriation bills in the traditional process. It’s just these continuing resolutions. And especially if your continued resolutions
are from things that were done during a financial crisis when you’re trying to stimulate the
economy and expand spending, well, I guess if we’re on autopilot from there, that’s where
our starting point’s going to keep on expanding.>>COREY: You can really see where the “Okay,
Boomer” sentiment is going to get really heated on this topic, because your son’s generation
is going to face the music on this deficit in a very serious way.>>ADAM: They’re going to say, “Okay, Millennial.” I’m a barely a Gen-Xer I guess. I barely make the cutoff.>>COREY: We’re at the upper end, too.>>STEVE: We’re old Gen-Xers.>>COREY: I want to get into something super
nerdy. So if we’re done with the interesting, fun
stuff, I kind of want to the stuff that virtually nobody cares about, which is you work really
hard on your statistical analyses to make sure your findings are robust, and I think
for someone who’s a nerd on the reproducibility crisis it’s really heartening to see somebody
work as hard as you do to try to get every angle and make sure your effects are real
and stuff. I don’t want to interrupt to go to something
that maybe 10 people care about, but I think it’s really interesting if someone delves
into the paper.>>ADAM: My co-author, this is near and dear
to his heart.>>STEVE: Is it fair to say this is a little
bit of a legacy of the impact of maybe the influence of economics on political science,
that you’re very careful about defining instruments properly and checking for causality and things
like that? Is that what you’re talking about, Corey?>>COREY: Yeah. Adam can go into the details. He runs a couple of different models, but
he’s very concerned about whether you have something that, maybe there’s an effect there,
but maybe he didn’t look far enough out. Maybe the effect did not appear to one model,
but he looks at another model. He also looks at … He’s just extremely concerned
that his results effective reproduce.>>STEVE: Yeah. The extreme limit would be to pre-register
and say, “I’m going to do this analysis when I get the data, and I’ll be convinced this
way if I get this result, and I’ll be” … Yeah.>>ADAM: Some of it, yes, we are concerned
about the replication crisis, this idea that lots of our findings … 20 people do a regression. One of them are going to find … Each gets
their own sample, does their regression. One of them’s going to find a statistically
significant effect. And the concern, especially in psychology,
with these experiments with small N that … Also what we’re seeing is that spurious result,
and the other ones just don’t get published.>>STEVE: It’s not even 20 different groups
do different regressions. It’s like you’re secretly doing 20 regressions
in your office, and then you’re publishing the one that came up …>>ADAM: Some of this is because it’s hard
to publish null results, too. Some of this is when we’re like, “Okay, we
have a null result,” we know, even in the review process, it’s going to be hard to get
that published, so we are just going to hammer it home and we’re going to try look at it
from every angle possible and just keep saying, “Look, the story’s the same. The story’s the same. Story’s the same. Story’s the same. Story’s the same.”>>ADAM: But some of it is realizing, going
in, that there’s a bias against null results, publishing those, and so we’re going to have
to really sell it.>>COREY: What’s interesting is that, in your
case, though, the null result is in some sense the interesting result, because it goes against
conventional wisdom.>>ADAM: Yeah. It is nice. That is a nice thing sometimes, when you have
a research project, whether you get the null result or the effect, it’s still interesting. Unfortunately, lots of things we care about
or lots of things that reviewers and editors care about don’t fall into that bin of they
find the null result interesting.>>ADAM: Anyway, so some of this, though, is,
in a way, it’s not necessarily … We do have concerns. We want our things to replicate, and we want
to show that they can replicate. But, in a weird way that also relates to the
replication crisis, because there’s a bias towards not publishing null results, we were
like, “Okay, fine. Then we are going to just hit you over the
head over and over again with our 100-plus-page appendix and our code that takes 45 minutes
or so for it to run on my computer to go through all of the regressions that we do to produce.” It took a long time running all of this.>>COREY: Do you think your approach, the level
of rigor you take, is now normal in the field, or are you kind of an outlier?>>ADAM: It’s becoming more and more normal. I think we’re still a bit of an outlier, and
some of this is, again, because we’re trying to sell a null result. But it is more and more the norm to put your
data up online, make it available. Most journals now are just saying, “Hey, we
accept you for publication. Now tell us where you’re making the data available.” I think that helps, too. That’s a step in the right direction.>>COREY: What kind of reaction have you gotten
to your findings?>>ADAM: One of them is “So you’re saying politics
don’t matter?” You have people like, “Parties matter. Obviously parties matter.” So some people push back in that way. And it’s a similar conversation I think we
end up having with people. It’s like, “Well, this doesn’t mean they don’t
matter. But, at the grand scale, maybe not as much
as people think.”>>ADAM: The other is there is a concern, too
… Some of these people say, “Oh, well, this shows retrospective voting is working. Maybe the reason he finds the null result
is because, ah-ha, they know they’re going to be punished for a bad economy, so they’re
all putting in the same effort and doing the same things. Boom, you’ve proved retrospective voting’s
actually happening.” And we pushed back against this in the paper. It’s a little subtle. I probably should’ve had bigger flags around
it, because this is the common critique we get. But our pushback is to say, “Yeah, but there’s
pretty strong evidence that they propose and actually pursue and pass different policies.” Now, you might say those policies aren’t extremely
different, and maybe that’s the pressure of retrospective voting or median-voter theorem
on what they’re proposing, but, to the extent that this fear of being published for the
economy or bad crime rates affects their behavior and makes them put more efforts into those
things, their effort looks different. They are pursuing different policies.>>ADAM: Anyway, those are, I think, the bigger
reaction.>>COREY: Now to push the positivist trope
too much, but the idea of retrospective voting is essentially a positivist idea. You put a hypothesis to what the party will
do, the party doesn’t do that, your hypothesis is falsified, and you punish them as a result. But I would say that that response you got
is effectively to make the theory unfalsifiable, because either result you got … Under the
scenario you laid out, the person who’s pushing back at you, either result would seem to support
their view. They’re claiming that your result supports
their view, and the alternative result would also support their view. So it seems like they’re effectively violating
the fundamental edict of positivism, which is your results should be falsifiable to at
least some degree.>>ADAM: Yeah. On some level, yes. This is how often the problem of rational
choice and some of the economic theory buildings [inaudible] “Well, this is actually why things
don’t fall in line with the model.” People do it with their data results, too,
and they massage it till everything lines up with what they want to see.>>ADAM: But, at the same time, it is tricky
when you think an equilibrium you won’t see an effect, because of a process that’s happening. Those are hard to test. I think sometimes that really can be the case
in some things. I’m trying to think is it falsifiable. I guess you’d have to get into the nitty gritty
of the mechanisms that lead up to no effect.>>ADAM: In this case, I think there’s research
that does that and says, “But the mechanism show that they’re not doing the exact same
things. They’re doing different things. The parties do at least slightly, moderately
… They’re doing different things.” Anyway.>>COREY: It seems that what the voters should
do … I’m trying to take a moral from this as to how rational voters should act going
forward. If they read your paper, read others in literature,
if you want to be rational, what should you do? And it seems like you should try to take a
survey of papers on policies, try to identify those policies where there’s evidence there
is an effect, and then to focus exclusively on people advocate those policies. They’re likely to have a significant effect
size, rather than worrying about the policies that are likely to have non-detectable effects. Does that seem reasonable?>>ADAM: But there are lots of policies … There’s
some pretty rigorous almost experimental evidence of some policies having positive effects. And our paper isn’t necessarily those policies
don’t have an effect. It’s more of just, at the grand scale, is
it going to push the whole economy forward enough for where you’re going to see it at
the state level? Probably not.>>ADAM: My thing is if you’re trying to be
a rational voter … Well, one, there’s the question should you be voting. But let’s say you decide it’s a public good
and “I’m going to get psychological benefits from doing it, and I’m going to create those
benefits for myself so that I have some incentives to do this and be informed.” So imagine this magical voter who rarely exists. I think, yeah, the ideal would be to say,
“Okay, what are they proposing, and is there decent evidence, arguments that one candidate’s
proposals are going to be better for the world?” And I think, for a lot of people, it can narrow
down to party. At least, in my sense, I’m often like, “Okay,
Republicans often push for this here in Utah. Democrats are pushing for this. In general, I think these bundle of policies
are going to be better. And, look, this candidate’s a Republican. They’re probably going to vote in these ways
or support a Speaker in the legislature who’s going to help push policy in that position. So yay or nay.” Anyway, that’s my spiel, my take.>>COREY: I think we’re about out of time. Steve, do you have other questions.>>STEVE: No, it’s been great. Thanks a lot, Adam.>>COREY: It’s been really interesting.>>ADAM: Yeah. Thanks for this. This has been fun to do.

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