The Monkey Cage

We are professors of political science.

Mandatory Voting Isn’t a Solution to Polarization

William Galston:

The third argument for mandatory voting goes to the heart of our current ills. Our low turnout rate pushes American politics toward increased polarization. The reason is that hard-core partisans are more likely to dominate lower-turnout elections, while those who are less fervent about specific issues and less attached to political organizations tend not to participate at levels proportional to their share of the electorate…A distinctive feature of our constitutional system — elections that are quadrennial for president but biennial for the House of Representatives — magnifies these effects. It’s bad enough that only three-fifths of the electorate turns out to determine the next president, but much worse that only two-fifths of our citizens vote in House elections two years later…But if you think that today’s intensely polarized politics impedes governance and exacerbates mistrust — and that is what most Americans firmly (and in my view rightly) believe — then you should be willing to consider reforms that would strengthen the forces of conciliation.

Calling the Tune

The president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”: is that a duty, or a power?  Over time, with the growth of the executive branch and the American administrative state, “presiders” have become “deciders”: hence Elena Kagan’s famous law review novella “Presidential Administration,” a how-to guide of sorts.

On Potential Deals in the Super-Committee

Political scientists Regina Smyth and William Bianco have written a pithy and interesting analysis of the sorts of deals that might emerge from the Super-Committee and, perhaps more importantly, the kinds of side-payments that party leaders might have to make if one of those deals is to win enough support in each chamber. Here is their analysis.  Here is short excerpt:

Many predictions about the shape of a potential deal emerging from the Debt Supercommitte (SC) process have centered on the personal chemistry of committee members, or the dearth of good feeling between congressional Democrats and Republicans. These analyses do not recognize the substance of bargaining, including the set of programs and policies that might be on the chopping block and the degree of overlap in members’ preferences over these specifics. In considering the shape of the potential deals, we base our analysis on measures of legislator preferences, as mediated through the fundamental congressional institution, majority rule, using uncovered sets and two-dimensional NOMINATE data.

Our analysis shows that many different deals can emerge from bargaining among SC members. But if negotiations center on deals that are enactable in the House or Senate, then only two kinds of deals are plausible. The first is a deal in which the House leadership is able to use its influence to accommodate the preferences of moderate Senate Democrats. This outcome is most likely in the case that House Republican leadership perceives the political cost of the reversion point as just too high with election a year away, and expects that the blame for a failure to cut the deficit will fall squarely on House Republican incumbents. However, this possibility becomes unlikely insofar as schemes to avoid defense cuts emerge. Conversely, if political costs are thought to be small, and bargaining is driven by policy concerns, then the pressure of the reversion mechanisms is likely to force House and Senate Democrats to agree to a deal that gives House Republicans most of what they want.

The analysis also reveals the critical role of side payments in securing enactment of a budget deal. Given the configuration of chamber uncovered sets, even if a deal emerges from the SC with strong bipartisan support, it cannot be enacted in both Houses without support from legislators who oppose it on the merits, a problem magnified by the inability to use policy concessions along the second dimension to attract support for a deal. If congressional leaders do not have enough side payments to compel a majority in one chamber to accommodate the preferences of the other – for a deal couched mostly in terms of the size and scope of government – then it is hard to see how Supercommittee process will produce a successful budget deal.

In the end, rather than taking power away from party leaders, the SC process puts them at the center of negotiations from beginning to end, and makes their support an essential component of any successful deal. Given policy deadlock between the House and Senate, leaders’ deployment of side payments is critical for success. Moreover, party leaders can provide important political cover to their caucuses. Leader support of an SC proposal gives their backbenchers a ready-made response to constituent criticisms of a yea vote – in Fenno’s terms, an explanation of Washington activity. It is not surprising, then, that as negotiations on the SC proceed, committee members from both parties are frequently consulting party leaders on both sides of the aisle – these leaders know as well as anyone which deals might be enactable, and control the political and policy resources needed to secure these outcomes.

Finally, our analysis highlights a dilemma facing the Republican leadership. While these leaders might prefer take automatic budget cuts off the table, either because they dislike the policy implications or feel that they and their party will feel the brunt of voter wrath, doing so erodes their bargaining position in budget negotiations. Thus, Republicans leaders must decide which outcome they consider to be more troubling: the prospect of a budget deal that favors Democrats, or the possibility of automatic cuts on programs they and their constituents favor, along with the possibility of significant political costs. Such concerns are consistent with attempts to find a way to sidestep the cuts in defense spending that will be triggered by a failure to enact a deficit-cutting deal. How Republicans resolve these issues will shape what sort of deal emerges from the SC and its prospects for success in the House and Senate.

(We are extraordinarily grateful to Sarah Binder, David Canon, and Larry Evans for their comments on earlier versions of this analysis, and to Keith Poole for providing NOMINATE data. The analysis and findings are our own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.)

Should voting be mandatory?

You can see my contribution to the discussion here. I discuss the research of Jan Leighley, Jonathan Nagler, and others. Here’s my conclusion:

Whether or not mandatory voting is a good idea, I think it’s unlikely to happen at a national level. Even setting aside the practical difficulties of taking a now-voluntary action and making it compulsory, bringing in the other half of the potential electorate would change the political conversation so much that it’s hard for me to see current officeholders supporting such a plan.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…. Technocratic Government!

The sky is falling! The Euro is collapsing! What can we do? Look, up in the sky: it’s a bird! it’s a plane, it’s….TECHNOCRATIC GOVERNMENT! Destined to save small and large European governments alike, the sudden appearance of technocratic government as a deus ex machnia is probably raising a similar thoughts in most (especially American) people’s head: just what is a technocratic government?

Are Deep Voices More Persuasive?

It is well-known that non-human animals respond to information encoded in vocal signals, and the same can be said of humans. Specifically, human voice pitch affects how speakers are perceived. As such, does voice pitch affect how we perceive and select our leaders? To answer this question we recorded men and women saying “I urge you to vote for me this November.” Each recording was manipulated digitally to yield a higher- and lower-pitched version of the original. We then asked men and women to vote for either the lower- or higher-pitched version of each voice. Our results show that both men and women select male and female leaders with lower voices. These findings suggest that because women, on average, have higher-pitched voices than men, voice pitch could be a factor that contributes to fewer women holding leadership roles than men.

Revealing the Submerged State

The hidden quality of social welfare benefits in the tax code means that many people are largely unaware of them, and have no idea of their overall impact. How could these policies of the submerged state be revealed, and what difference would it make? Matt Guardino and I created a web-based experiment to test the impact of providing people with small amounts of basic information about such policies. We found that it had two basic effects: (1) people who expressed no opinion on such policies in the absence of information became significantly more likely to do so after receiving information; (2) after the provision of information, people adopted views that made sense given their political values and their interests, as defined by income. Overall, opposition grew to the policies that aid predominantly high income people, while support grew for policies that aid low income people.

One part of the study, for example, first asked people whether they support or oppose the Home Mortgage Income Deduction. Then subjects were distracted by being asked some questions about sports and entertainment. Next, they received an information treatment consisting of the following statement and graph:

Now here is some information about the federal Home Mortgage Interest Deduction. This policy is a tax benefit for homeowners. It allows them to reduce the amount they pay in income taxes based on the amount they pay in interest on their home mortgages.

Not much of a mystery

Wow, that Steve Forbes guy is pretty dumb! I wonder how someone this foolish got a column in Forbes magazine???

Overall then

Overall, then, I’d say there’s evidence that a white-knight candidate can succeed in executive office if he comes either from a government-dominated business sector such as telecoms where lobbying and politics are a major part of the business, or if he has been a senior officer in the secret police. White-knight leaders’ terms, if politically successful, probably lead to tremendous increases in corruption, clientelism, and centralised executive power, and to bitter political polarisation. White-knight leaders generally end their terms refusing to relinquish power, and embroiled in legal difficulties or popular uprisings. So I’m not generally optimistic about the idea of electing non-politicians to fix the mess in Washington. How about you?

The Economics Public Sphere

Mark Thoma, live at SSRN

… economics lost communication with policymakers and practitioners leaving room for all sorts of “charlatans and cranks” to fill the void. In doing so, academics ceded important ground to think tanks aligned with one party or the other, to self-appointed economic experts, to business economists maximizing profit rather than public knowledge, and to a media that doesn’t always comprehend the economics that underlie a particular issue. Even in cases where there actually was fairly wide agreement among academic economists about a particular policy proposal, the public debate in the media did not convey that economists were largely united on the issue.

The World’s Most Bizarre Political Ads, Part II

My call last week for bizarre political ads from across the globe received a fair number of peculiar and sometimes downright frightening examples. Especially popular were singing politicians, like these German Social-Democrats and Iceland’s Best Party, which actually won the mayoral election for which the ad was made although, according to commenter Sona, they failed to deliver on their campaign promise to bring a polar bear to Reykjavik’s zoo. The prize in this category, however, goes to this Polish politician who “sang” his campaign message accompanied by a death metal band.

Does Money Affect Election Outcomes in US Politics? A Quick Review of the Literature

Yesterday I addressed the question of whether Obama was actually having trouble raising money for his 2012 re-election campaign. This of course begs a larger question: how much does campaign spending actually affect election outcomes in US politics? I put this question to Andrew Therriault, a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University and an expert on campaign effects.

Q: (me) What are the basic conclusions of the literature regarding overall spending in US elections?


A: (Therriault): With regard to overall spending, Jacobson (1978) was the first to show an effect on vote outcomes, but this effect was mainly present for challengers [in Congressional elections]. In subsequent years, the effect of challenger spending was confirmed, but others also found effects for incumbent spending as well (e.g. Green & Krasno 1988, Erikson & Palfrey 1995, Gerber 1998). The basic takeaway is that spending more is clearly effective for challengers, and probably also matters for incumbents too, but solving the causal direction problems involved makes it very difficult to be really certain of any of these findings.


One problem is we know that winning candidates generally have more money, but whether money helps candidates or is just a signal of unobserved candidate quality [i.e., people give more money to better candidates] is unclear. Another problem is that not only are donors attracted to high-quality candidates just as voters are, but they are also attracted to winning candidates—that is, if money is given in order to get access to elected officials, donors are more likely to give to candidates who are expected to do well, because the expected return is greater. In both cases, we could observe an empirical relationship between winning and having more money for your campaign, without the money actually “causing” the victory.

The one-sided bet rears its ugly head once again

The story of notorious speed-limit-violater and gambler-with-other-people’s-money Jon Corzine should remind us all of the problem with asymmetrical bets.

Corzine’s behavior has been linked to the idea of “too big to fail” (see link above)—-and I agree these can make things worse—-but I think the fundamental problem would arise even in a world without bailouts. The fundamental problem seems to be that the laws put people like Corzine in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose situation. If he makes his bet, he wins billions, but if he loses his bet, he doesn’t have to pay billions. Sure, he lost his reputation, but he’s not having to pay billions of dollars back to people.