Myth Making as National Building: The Case of the United States of America

This is from Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:

As [John] Adams remembered it … “all the great critical questions about men and measures from 1774 to 1778” were desperately contested and highly problematic occasions, usually “decided by the vote of a single state, and that vote was often decided by a single individual.” Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible to the soldiers in the field at Saratoga or the statesmen in the corridors at Philadelphia: “It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.” The real drama of the American Revolution, which was perfectly in accord with Adams’ memory as well as with the turbulent conditions of his own soul, was its inherent messiness. This meant recovering the exciting but terrifying sense that all the major players had at the time — namely, that they were making it up as they went along, improvising on the edge of catastrophe.

Of course a real catastrophe would befall the United States more than eight decades after independence in the form of a bloody civil war that killed more than 600,000 (2 percent of the U.S. population at the time).

The book is a fantastic page turner. My impression after reading it is that America was lucky that two of its first three presidents were Virginians who represented a social class that was terribly indebted to British financiers.

On a related note, I am always surprised by how little Americans know about what happened between July 1776 and George Washington’s inauguration as president in April of 1789. A lot about America that seems preordained in hindsight was terribly contingent in the first decade of independence. As a student of legislative development, I have learned a lot about these turbulent and uncertain years from works on the early state legislatures and the Continental Congress. Peverill Squire’s Evolution of American Legislatures (1619-2009) is my favorite book on this subject. Highly recommended.

Tyler Cowen on the Contours of Partisanship in American Politics

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on the contours of partisan politics in America. In the post he argues that at the state-level Republican politics and governance is superior to the Democratic variety:

This superior performance stems from at least two factors.  First, Republican delusions often matter less at the state and local level, and furthermore what the core Republican status groups want from state and local government is actually pretty conducive to decent outcomes.  The Democrats in contrast keep on doling out favors and goodies to their multitude of interest groups, and that often harms outcomes.  The Democrats find it harder to “get tough,” even when that is what is called for, and they have less of a values program to cohere around, for better or worse.

Second, the states with a lot of Democrats are probably on average harder to govern well (with some notable Southern exceptions).  That may excuse the quality of Democratic leadership to some degree, but it is not an entirely favorable truth for the broader Democratic ethos. Republicans, of course, recognize this reality.  Even a lot of independent voters realize they might prefer local Republican governance, and so in the current equilibrium a strong majority of governors, state legislatures, and the like are Republican.

Thomas Pepinsky looked under the hood of this argument and found this:

Those high functioning states (he cites this report) are North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, and Iowa.

It is not obvious to me why Republicans would not look to the entire map of places that the GOP controls state government.

Maybe one clue is that those five states are among the whitest states in the country.

As an exercise, let’s ponder what “They think the rest of America should be much more like those places” means.

Cowen also has an interesting theory of why expats foreigners tend to lean Democratic:

It is easier for intelligent foreigners to buy more heavily into the Democratic stories. They feel more comfortable with the associated status relations, and furthermore foreigners are less likely to be connected to American state and local government, so they don’t have much sense of how the Republicans actually are more sensible in many circumstances.any circumstances.

I don’t know what to make of this. I’ve never lived in a fully Republican controlled state. All I know is that Republican governors and legislatures have a knack for cutting taxes at the expense of essential public goods — like schools in Kansas or drinkable water in Michigan; or refusing to accept federal dollars to finance healthcare for their poor voters in the name of ideological purity. I also know that for all their talk of ideological purity when it comes to social spending, Republicans’ preference for the size of the social safety net is conditional on the proportion of the population that is of European descent.

This is not to say that Republican elites are evil or anything. They are simply self-interested. Instead, it speaks to the awkwardness of the Republican coalition.

In Cowen’s language, in the current historical moment I see Democrats as a coalition that peddles status and some goodies to boot. Republican elites, on the other hand, traffic almost exclusively in status, while opting for lower taxes and fewer regulations for elites. This may work during boom times. But in tough economic times a shared status (codified by say, race) might not be enough to convince the working poor that they are natural political allies with either anti-tax business owners or the editors of the National Review.

And if we are honest, it doesn’t help that we’ve just had 7+ years under a president from a historically low status group in the American context.

Enter Donald John Trump.

Race and political ads in America

obama.pngThere is strong evidence linking skin complexion to negative stereotypes and adverse real-world outcomes. We extend these findings to political ad campaigns, in which skin complexion can be easily manipulated in ways that are difficult to detect. Devising a method to measure how dark a candidate appears in an image, this paper examines how complexion varied with ad content during the 2008 presidential election campaign (study 1). Findings show that darker images were more frequent in negative ads—especially those linking Obama to crime—which aired more frequently as Election Day approached. We then conduct an experiment to document how these darker images can activate stereotypes, and show that a subtle darkness manipulation is sufficient to activate the most negative stereotypes about Blacks—even when the candidate is a famous counter-stereotypical exemplar—Barack Obama (study 2). Further evidence of an evaluative penalty for darker skin comes from an observational study measuring affective responses to depictions of Obama with varying skin complexion, presented via the Affect Misattribution Procedure in the 2008 American National Election Study (study 3). This study demonstrates that darker images are used in a way that complements ad content, and shows that doing so can negatively affect how individuals evaluate candidates and think about politics.

The paper is titled “Bias in the Flesh: Skin Complexion and Stereotype Consistency in Political Campaigns,” by Messing, Jabon, and Plaut.

The average adult American (regardless of party ID, ideology, race, or region) grew up in an era in which news media and popular portrayal of Americans of African origin (and for that matter, Africans) was far worse than it is today. So findings like these, and their real political and economic consequences, are gonna be with us for a while.

H/T Dina Pomeranz

On direct cash transfers: a look at US domestic politics of aid-giving

This is a guest post by my colleague at Stanford, Lauren Prather, who works on the determinants of individual attitudes towards inequality, poverty, and redistribution, in both domestic and international contexts.

Does the American public oppose giving cash to poor people in developing countries? Giving cash instead of in-kind aid like food is a hotly debated subject in development circles and has recently received increased attention from the media. The apparent success of GiveDirectly, a charity that gives unconditional cash transfers to poor people in Kenya, has added fresh fodder to the discussion. Even the Obama administration entered the fray earlier this year by proposing changes to the way U.S. food aid is distributed.

Traditionally, much of the food aid provided by the U.S. government is procured in the U.S. and shipped abroad. The reforms would relax these requirements and include more flexible approaches to food aid provision including possibly giving cash or vouchers to people in poor countries to help them buy food locally.

Proponents of cash transfers argue that the poor know their needs best and therefore giving cash is a more efficient way of providing aid. With food aid in particular, providing aid in kind can be more expensive and can damage local economies by driving out local farmers. Giving people cash on the other hand can allow them to buy food locally, which can be more cost-effective for donors and can actually support local agriculture.

What are the political constraints to reforming aid to include cash transfers to the poor? While most of the opposition to the food aid reforms has come from the farm lobby, public opinion may be another constraint. Indeed, research on American political attitudes suggests that Americans oppose giving cash to the poor, at least to poor Americans. But do Americans exhibit the same level of opposition to cash transfers targeting the foreign poor?

To shed light on this question, I used a randomized experiment embedded in a survey fielded in July of 2013 to a representative sample of 1,000 Americans. In the survey, I gave individuals a fictional news article that described a government hunger relief program. The news article contained two experimental treatments. In the first treatment, I randomly told half of the survey respondents that the program gave the poor cash, while the other half read that the poor were given food. The second treatment was randomized independently of the first treatment: half the respondents were told that the program helped Americans and the other half read that it helped people living in other countries. After reading the article, survey respondents were asked whether or not they thought the government should cut the program. 

ImageThe results were surprising. Among those who read about the foreign hunger relief program, the cash treatment had little effect: 45% of respondents thought officials should not cut the program giving food, while a similar 43% thought officials should not cut the cash program. For those that read about the domestic program, however, the results were more expected: 72% of respondents wanted to keep the food program, whereas only 58% wanted to keep the program that gave the poor cash.

Two important conclusions can be drawn from these results. First, policymakers shouldn’t necessarily look to how the public thinks about domestic welfare programs to predict how they would respond to similar foreign aid programs. Instead, it appears that support for foreign aid remains relatively low regardless of whether the aid is distributed in kind or in cash.

Second, advocates of giving cash to the poor in developing countries need not fear the public; at least not any more than is usual for foreign aid. In the eyes of the public, the real issue seems to be whether to give any foreign aid at all.

Quick Hits

Haiti wants to join the African Union 

Partisan stats: Of red-state moochers and blue state makers 

Romney’s elusive tax plan (funny)

Zuma’s failed presidency and South Africa’s labor unrest

Mo Ibrahim Prize goes unclaimed, again

Kenya might be seeing the origins of insurgency (More details on this soon)

In which Mitt Romney channels Downs (1957)

Sometimes politicians get out of character and reveal the naked truth about the strategic logic of hunting for votes in a two-party electoral system.

Briefly stated, the median voter rules (also check this out).

[youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=wqyEnJ3b4Mo]

For more on this check out the piece on the Times website.

Afro-American relations and Justice

FP Magazine reports:

In short, all the carrots that U.S. diplomats are offering the Sudanese president seem to be working. Among the prizes for Khartoum are a U.S. promise to remove Sudan from its list of terrorism-supporting states and a possible visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to the Sudan Tribune. Earlier this month, U.S. State Department officials also signaled that they would be ready to begin normalization following Sudan’s acceptance of the vote.

While the US approach has yielded good results in securing the secession referendum in the South, American policy in the wider region leaves a lot to be desired. Washington appears to be ready to cut a deal with any dictator, as long as they serve a short-term US need.

America needs to do more on Darfur. America needs to do more in Ethiopia, where Meles Zenawi continues to reign with an iron fist without any pretense of respecting human rights. America needs to do more in Uganda, where Museveni has emerged as an anti-terror crusader who does not care for any liberal (in the classical sense) ideals.

The choice between protecting American interests abroad and respecting the rights of other peoples of the world is a false choice. Liberty (the world over) is not incompatible with American security. The ideals embodied in the federalist papers, the American declaration of independence, and the first amendment of the US constitution should not be confined within the US borders as far as American policy goes.