Monday, November 19, 2012

Express Yourself

There is an excellent book by the economist Bryan Caplan called The Myth of the Rational Voter, which I highly encourage you to read in the aftermath of this last election.  He cites the work of some political scientists who came up with “expressive” voting theory:

“In expressive voting theory, voters know that feel-good policies are ineffective.  Expressive voters do not embrace dubious or absurd beliefs about the world.  They simply care more about how policies sound than how they work.”

You can indulge in expressive voting in cases where there is little to no personal cost in doing so, and within the institutional structure of democracy, political irrationality is a “free good”, as your vote is one of over 100 million, and has little true material value – its value is almost entirely psychological. 

There is a flip-side to the “expressive” coin – polite company almost requires opinions that wholly ignore economics.  Caplan:  “In economics, there is an intrinsic motivation to get things wrong.  If you think the right answer, you feel insensitive and unpatriotic; if you say the right answer, you feel like a pariah.”  In the case of the topics I’ve been stressing in these latest posts – redistribution, taxation of the rich, and middle class entitlements – surely expressive voting has some role in people simply ignoring the arguments that these policies make us all poorer.  In contrast, the policies of the Obama administration – “Who can I give sh&^ away to?” and “Who can I take sh^* away from?” – have an obvious attraction to expressive voters when the answer to the first is the poor and the middle class, and the answer to the second is the rich.  Combine that with a presidential run against a guy who is rich, and you have the perfect expressive voting storm. 

Romney’s essential campaign platform – stop hampering businesses through excessive regulations and investors through excessive taxation, and the jobs will come back due to increased business investment – has the appearance of a hand-out to the rich; Obama’s essential campaign platform – it’s time for the rich to buck up to pay for the rest of us – has the opposite appearance being compassionate.  The onerous nature of expressive voting is such that even if you understand that these appearances are a crude caricature, you are still reluctant to be seen as the Scrooge, and prefer instead to cling to a belief in Santa Claus.  Expressive voting is also why there is a payoff to crying racism for every conservative policy that a liberal opposes.  Whether or not it is true, it puts more people in the position of being potentially perceived in that light, and can therefore influence voting behavior.

(As an aside, if you doubt the importance of expressive voting, ask yourself why it is viewed as such an important poll question as to which candidate “cares more about me.”  Recall my prior post on the laziness of the human mind, and the tendency to substitute an easy question we can answer for a complex question we are too lazy to consider. The fact that “who cares more” has become a consideration of voters is a measure of how much we’ve already infantilized ourselves relative to our government.  The government, like the parents of a newborn, exists for the primary purpose of caring for our needs.  Not protecting our liberties, not securing our freedom, just caring for us.)

Being provided the opportunity for expressive voting also arguably leads to the crowding out of private charity.  In his book Who Really Cares?, Arthur Brooks details the patterns of charitable giving in the U.S.  Brooks found that those who were the primary advocates of forced redistribution were far less charitable:

… before I started the research for this book, I assumed that those people most concerned and vocal about economic inequality would be the most likely to give to charity. But I was wrong. Instead, I found a large amount of data all pointing in the same direction: For many people, the desire to donate other people's money displaces the act of giving one's own. People who favor government income redistribution are significantly less likely to behave charitably than those who do not. Even if the policies they support do not come into effect, they are still far less likely to donate to charity. For many Americans, political opinions are a substitute for personal checks; but people who value economic freedom, and thus bridle against forced income redistribution, are far more charitable. (Emphasis added).

In the aggregate, expressive voting can lead to the strange perpetuation of policies that most voters (even those who were on board) view as being either ineffective or even counterproductive.  What can counter expressive voting?  Well, there is the theory that “retrospective” voting can lead people to see the wreckage of certain policies, and discard them.  But judgments about outcomes can be biased.  As Caplan puts it: “ ‘Believing is seeing’ – people may wear rose-colored glasses if and only if their preferred policies hold sway.”  (I once had a guy claim to me prior to the 2008 election that he was worse off economically as compared to 2000; in the course of those eight years he had struck out on his own and was obviously very successful.) 

In one respect, the Obama campaign was premised on retrospective voting, with the constant refrain that “their policies” led to the problem.  Which policies in particular are never pointed out – the only policy that you ever hear them discuss is tax policy and banking deregulation.  First, the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration were extended through every year of the Obama administration at its discretion.  Second, Bush tried and did tighten reserve requirements for banks in his first term. Perhaps you think that the correct policy would have been to go further, but if the Dodd-Frank financial regulations are a panacea, why is it that their implementation was purposefully delayed until post-election?  The political demand for such regulation was the result of an incorrect but compelling caricature of Wall Street screwing Main Street, which does not lead to any confidence that the resulting regulations will address the real problems.  I would recommend the book Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy is Wrong by Ed Conard to cure you of any confidence you might have in the popular diagnosis of what went wrong, as well as the likely effects of Dodd-Frank and other changes in policies. 

Post-financial crisis, the Obama administration has been fully in control of economic policy from the outset of the recession, and has presided over the slowest post-recession economic recovery since WWII.  There are multiple books that decry the adverse economic effects of his policies, including:

·         The Redistribution Recession: How Labor Market Distortions Contracted the Economy by Casey Mulligan at the University of Chicago;

·         Government Policies and the Delayed Economic Recovery by Lee Ohanian, John Taylor, and Ian Wright; and

·         Getting Off Track: How Government Actions and Interventions Caused, Prolonged, and Worsened the Financial Crisis, by John B. Taylor.

The bad news: these same lines of research have shown the New Deal policies of FDR to have been a disaster for the economy for similar reasons, and yet he was re-elected 3 times over.


Blogger pbryon said...

Newton's third law of economics: For every theory, there is an equal and opposite theory?

Economics is out of my field, but it seems to me that there are all kinds of opposing theories, and all somehow provide proof that they're right. How can this be?

11:07 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Sign up for my Notify List and get email when I update!

powered by